Mar 2020 31

In October 2019, Reagan Jones and Andrew Sega spoke with ReGen about their creative evolution over the course of two decades to explain how IRIS has become the preeminent North American synthpop band.


An InterView with Reagan Jones & Andrew Sega of IRIS

By Brian H. McLelland (BMcLelland)

20 years is a milestone for any band, so 2019 was a momentous year for North American synthpop act IRIS. Celebrating the occasion with a special performance of the revered Disconnect debut, in which Reagan Jones and Andrew Sega were joined by original member Matt Morris, and then followed by a series of European dates, the band also released its sixth full-length record. Appropriately titled Six, the album demonstrated the duo’s propensity for sharp electronic melodies and poignant lyrical themes, following an evolutionary path that finds Jones and Sega standing apart from contemporaries in the genre without actively defying the essentials of quality songwriting and production. In this InterView conducted in October 2019, ReGen‘s Brian H. McLelland spoke with IRIS about the band’s development over the course of two decades, touching on the specifics of Jones’ songwriting and Sega’s production styles – never people to overthink things and always look forward.


What did you learn from the making of this album, both as musicians and personally?

Jones: Had you asked that seven years ago, the answers would come a lot easier, but being in the sunset of 20+ years of making music, I don’t learn things like I used to. I think more than learning some specific thing, it’s maybe more acceptance of certain things, being at peace with other things, and maybe taking time to rethink how I might approach new songs after some time away. For starters, I’d like to finally ditch my old workstation keyboard setup and start completely new with a MIDI to softsynth arrangement like most people use. As a songwriter, I’ve probably gone as far as I can with the old setup.

Sega: I’m on the opposite side of the coin, since I work on the music, and that presents different challenges. From a production perspective, I moved into a new house after Radiant came out and was finally able to build a ‘real’ studio in my basement, which was much better than the cramped situation living in N.Y.C.. I think this gave the record a different feel as I tended to use more bass, keep things a bit more up-tempo, etc.. I’m still learning a few new production tricks, but mostly, I’ve just achieved a comfort level that has allowed me to get ideas down pretty quickly. We’re also continually trying to stretch the envelope a bit – I couldn’t imagine songs like ‘Joy Kill’ or ‘Out Of My Mind’ going in the same directions on previous records.

How do you think you’ve grown as artists?

Jones: This is also a hard question for me, because I don’t consciously seek out ways to grow, which maybe is a bad thing. I was more or less attempting to create songs that, in some way, elicited the feelings I got from being a fan of certain bands. Then when the grunge scene took over, you had to almost obsessively strive, because it wasn’t like today where song-based electronic music is so pervasive and welcomed by audiences; there was a stigma you had to fight against. Over time, I realized there had to be more to this than chasing someone else’s sound or style, and just by virtue of the work you put in, I slowly started to blend influences and sort of come into what I suppose would be considered a personal style of songwriting. I never intentionally made great efforts to change the style or sound, because what comes out needs to be authentic to wherever your head’s at. That was always the path of least resistance, so have I grown? Sure, but I can’t say to what degree.

Sega: To build on what Reagan said, I also have stopped caring about trying to ‘compete’ with other bands. I make an effort to listen to a lot of new music, and my production style is really just the sum of whatever influences I’ve been listening to at the time. The irony is that this more casual approach has gotten us to achieve some milestones that we’ve never reached before – Top 40 German charts, #1 DAC album, etc..



Could you tell us a little bit about your songwriting process and how your approach has changed?

Jones: I used to think my process was odd, but over time, I started to hear that others used the same approach – Bono from U2 being one. What I mean by that is I was never interested in jotting lyrics down and then writing a song to them. I wanted to create the emotional feel first, so if you walked in when I was working at the earliest stages of a song, you’d hear me singing something that sounds like English, but isn’t; it’s basically gibberish. As the track progresses from verse to pre-chorus, to chorus, words begin to latch on until some sort of theme emerges. The lyrics fall into place while I’m focusing on the structure and feel of the song. Once the basic format is in place, the switch gets flipped and now I’m honing the lyrics, so it has the depth I want it to have. Lyrics were never my first priority, just like singing and my vocal work was never my priority – only the feel of the song; the sap in the tree, so to speak, but each part needs to work together, and I probably now enjoy the lyrical and vocal sides of the equation more than before.

How does a song like ‘Third Strike’ go from nothing to completion?

Sega: This was actually one of the last songs we worked on for Six. Sometimes you think you’re almost done with a record, and then a few demos show up and you think to yourself, ‘This absolutely has to go on the album.’ With this one, after listening to Reagan’s demo, I immediately thought of it as the album opener before even working on the production. I really liked the lyrical theme, as it kind of fit in with the sentiment of having one last chance to, say, make a great record. With this track, I tried to create a soundscape that would build over the course of the song, swirling and evolving with a bit of edge and nervousness.
One of the techniques I use – and this may sound a bit ridiculous – is to try to put together a sketch of the song extremely quickly (usually after a few beers) and get the basic groove, feel, the ‘soul’ in place in just a few hours maximum. Then I’ll take a break for a day or two, and re-listen early in the morning, usually having forgotten most of what I actually did. This gives me a brief moment of completely fresh clarity, where I can almost experience it as a listener would. I then write down my immediate first thoughts and gut-level reaction, and this informs how I finish the rest of the song.
This song was also a bit unfinished when the demo was delivered, as the ‘warning sign’ bit onward was intended to be a bridge. However, after playing with it a bit, I thought that it should actually be the end of the song as it really worked well with a big build and ending right on the ‘I’m gone’ lyrics. If you want a more traditional take, then check out the Neuroticfish mix as Sascha brought it back for a final chorus, which gives it a different (and more clubby feel). Overall, this one was done in just a few nightly sessions, which is really the best case scenario.

What kind of self-reflection goes on behind the scenes before new material is created? For example, do you listen to your older albums>

Jones: I’ve only recently gone back and started listening to our previous work. For some reason, after each album, I never really looked back, but was always looking forward… looking forward to the creative process. I like that more than the finalizing of an album or even live shows – being wired into the studio, headphones on, and writing. Also, self-reflection is something I have a hard time turning off, so it’s not something I prepare to do for writing. It just is. I think consequently, the lyrics speak to self-reflection more than anything in IRIS material.

Sega: Yeah, I don’t re-listen to old albums in preparation for new ones; however, I do have critical/retrospective feelings about our records (and my personal work), which don’t really manifest until six-to-12 months later or more. For example, I think Awakening was inspired, but too amateur production-wise; Wrath needed more bass; Blacklight was possibly too dark; Radiant was a bit too ambient. Perhaps I’m too critical, but for this one, I wanted to find something a bit more in the middle, and having a new studio environment helped considerably.

You just celebrated a 20 year anniversary, so congratulations and thank you on behalf of all your fans. What does the road ahead look like?

Jones: Right now, we’re just glad to have Six released and see it being received well.

Sega: We did a great 20th anniversary show in Philadelphia, which was amazing in terms of connecting with a lot of very diehard fans. There is also some talk about possibly doing some vinyl re-releases, especially Wrath, which I feel needs the biggest sonic facelift – stay tuned on that.



What are you excited about right now, musically or otherwise?

Jones: I’ve taken some time away from music and started working on screenplays. The road is steep to make any headway in the film scene, but I can write screenplays at my leisure without investing in equipment or even leaving the house, so we’ll see if I can pull it off.

Sega: Musically, there are lots of super interesting bands out there. Lately, I’ve been tending away from electronics a bit and leaning more into indie and even some goth music – Drab Majesty, Soccer Mommy, DIIV, The Beths, Hatchie, etc..

Besides IRIS, Andrew Sega recently released his Hallowed Hearts debut single. How did this band get started?

Sega: I’ve been friends with Alex Virlios (Blue Images) for almost 20 years now, and lately, I’ve been re-discovering a lot of goth and post-punk music like Pink Turns Blue, Sisters, and newer bands like She Past Away, etc.. I’ve always wanted to do a project in this vein, even though I didn’t really grow up in that scene like he did. I sat down earlier this year and just started writing demos with the intent of keeping it very loose and creative. Alex is a great front man for this style, and I’ve given him about 10 demos now that we’re working into our debut album. It’s going to be a bit more passionate and melodic than your average post-punk/coldwave band as we don’t want to just try to be another trendy genre clone. Hopefully, we’ll have a full length out by Spring – stay tuned!



How is the approach to production and songwriting different in this band?

Sega: We have our own quirky style of doing things. For me, IRIS has always been about atmosphere. I’m always striving to create something with a memorable mood, that amplifies the zeitgeist of the song and really brings out some sort of emotional quality.
In terms of process, Reagan writes a lot of demos, usually on his Korg workstation. He then sends me a big batch on DropBox, some of which are just a verse/chorus, while others are fully fleshed-out four-minute songs. I then essentially curate it and pick the songs that I feel have the most potential to work together on an album. Sometimes I’m able to make them work, and at other times, I get stuck and am not able to get production that quite lives up to the promise of the demo. He also continues to send new ones during the production process, which, for us, isn’t always quick. I then basically recreate the structure of the demo using all new sounds. Occasionally, I’ll keep a few bits of Reagan’s demo sounds if they are unique or are intrinsically linked to the DNA of the track. An example of this on the new record would be the burbly arpeggiation in the bridge of ‘Feeder.’ It just had this super cool slightly off-time feel, which made the bridge groove much better.
By the time we have five or six songs, we are starting to get an idea of where the sound is going, which happens very organically. Software-wise, I use a mix of Ableton Live and Buzztracker for this, trying to piece together something that sounds fresh, but still maintains the original vibe and heart of the demo. Almost no hardware is involved at this point – everything’s done via various Native Instruments, Arturia, and Soundtoys plugins, with the exception of the guitar tracks, which are also processed digitally. Unlike some other bands, we don’t use external producers, for better or worse – all the music is just the product of the two of us.



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Photography by Dirk Eusterbrock ([Show as slideshow]

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