by Alexander Laurence
makes music that's a distinct soundwave of profound emotion.
It's makeout music for those sitting in the dark, or for
those basking in the absence of a loved one. Their whispered
lyrics are like a letter from a distant friend. In a Calla
classic "Strangler" these words are sung: "Something's
gotten hold of my tongue/See what you've done?/I would give
anything/ Just to see it happen to you."
There has always been a mystery surrounding this New York
Group. Michael Gira described them as: "intense, challenging,
and utterly committed to emotion." They started performing
in Texas, and once were called The Factory Press, but moved
to Brooklyn in 1995. In 1997, they added Sean Donovan and
formed Calla. This past year, Calla has traveled all around
the world to perform their unique music.
Calla is Aurelio Valle (guitar/vocals), Wayne Magruder
(drums) and Sean Donovan (keyboard/bass). They released
a self-titled debut on Sub Rosa in 1999 and followed it
up with Scavengers in 2001. Recently, Calla added
old friend Peter Gannon on rhythm guitar. Bands like Godspeed
You Black Emperor, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Cat Power,
Interpol, and Sigur Ros have been eager to perform with
them. They have released two records in the past year; Custom:
The Remix Project (2002) and Televise (2002).
I recently talked with Sean Donovan about the recent record
and the recent tour.
July 10th, 2002: Calla are playing in New York City
at South Street Seaport with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jorma
Kaukonen. Check them out!
AL: You guys are from Texas. How did you meet?
Sean: I am from Dallas. The drummer and I went to high
school together. We all met in the Dallas area. Aurelio
went to school in north Texas. Denton and Austin are the
best places to play in Texas. If you want to play show for
500 people, Denton is great. Kids will show up. Austin is
a great music town. Denton aspires to be like Austin. If
you are a bigger band you can play in Dallas. When I was
growing up I never went to Denton, I either went to shows
in Dallas or down to Austin.
AL: Was there a lot of clubs back then when you started?
Sean: There's this place in Dallas called Theater Gallery.
That's where all the Dallas bands started. This whole area
grew around that one club. Now that area is really commercial.
So in twenty years it went from having no clubs to peaking
in the 1990s to being a commercial area now. The Butthole
Surfers and Jesus Lizard are from Austin. Bedhead is probably
the biggest band to make it out of Dallas.
AL: What was The Factory Press like?
Sean: That was the other three guys. I always recorded
with them and helped with arrangements. That was the band
which moved up to New York. It was much rawer and aggressive.
It was more like The Birthday Party and Joy Division. They
moved to New York City in 1995 and tried that out for a
while. It broke up in late 1996. When I moved to New York
in early 1997, that is when we started Calla.
AL: New York City in the mid-1990s was a different place.
There were still a bunch of old rock bands hanging around
that wouldn't go away. Nobody was really into new music.
Sean: We all had high expectations of New York. We thought
it was going to be like it is now: all these really great
bands and all this attention. When we moved up there we
had a reality check. At the time we thought people would
be into the same music that we were into. We thought that
they would get it a lot faster. We were wrong. New York
caught on about as fast as Texas.
AL: Were there a lot of venues to play?
Sean: When Calla first started to play, there was a place
called The Cooler. It is similar to what Tonic is today.
Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo would always be there. There
would be a weird mix of electronic music and rock stuff.
That was a really great club. There was Brownies. The Ludlow
Street scene had just started. The Mercury Lounge was there
and then some other clubs went up around there.
AL: Did you listen to a lot of different music back then,
like Movie Soundtracks?
Sean: No, not really. We still listen to the same sort
of music that we always did. We still listen to Jesus and
Mary Chain or New Order. Each of us has their own specialty
of what they listen to. That was the case back in the beginning.
AL: You are familiar with Ennio Morricione and Barry Adamson
and the stuff they have done?
Sean: Yeah. We weren't trying to emulate that stuff when
we first started. It's just that some of the sounds and
some of the textures are very similar I think. We were mixing
similar sounds as was Barry Adamson. We used a lot of samples
in the beginning.
AL: Which member writes all the songs?
Sean: Each song is different. We all write songs. It is
a group effort. Someone will bring in a sketch and pass
it around, and people will add layers. Aurelio will bring
in a simple guitar riff. He will pass it off to us and we
will work on it and structure a song. We will create a lot
of possible sounds. We will listen to what we have done
and decide what direction we want to take it. Then we will
try to play it live. Then it evolves again. There are usually
three or four transformations of a song. The songwriting
process takes us a lot of time. We are not one of those
normal bands who sit in a room and jams on a few chords,
and write a song in five minutes. Aurelio writes all the
AL: Have you gotten better live playing all these shows
other the years?
Sean: It definitely helps with the nerves when you are
playing every night. We actually signed a record deal before
we had played a live show. We had finished the first record
before we had ever played live. Each record is like the
ideas of the first record reinterpreted through us playing
AL: You have been with a few different labels already.
Sean: Our record with Young God was always going to be
a one record deal. Michael Gira really wanted to do that
record. So we ended up doing Scavengers with Young God Records.
We played with five or six shows with Gira around New York,
when that record came out.
AL: What about some of the other records? You did a split
record with The Walkmen. Then there is Custom: The Remix
Project. How did those records come about?
Sean: We have know the Walkmen since they were in Jonathan
Fire Eater. That was one of the bands that The Factory Press
played with. Troubleman wanted to do a split CD, so we went
up to their studio and recorded two tracks. The Remix CD
was done by friends of ours. We asked them to do it. It
was originally going to be a 12 inch single. We liked the
results so we decided to put out a full record.
AL: Do you like having many different records out there?
Sean: Yeah. It's best to confuse people. There is a lot
going on in the band. People will come see us live and they'll
think that's what we are about. Then they are surprised
when they buy a record. And visa-versa. Both aspects are
interesting. It gets people thinking a little bit more.
AL: Before you moved to New York, bands probably knew you
guys already from touring in Texas?
Sean: We have always musician's favorites first, then critic's
favorites second, and then eventually everyone else find
out about us. We are trying to play a lot of live shows
around to get people familiar with what we are doing.
AL: When did you record the new album, Televise?
Sean: Televise was recorded at the beginning of last year,
2002. The time span was probably three months. But we were
all still working jobs full time. We would record late at
night and on weekends. We probably spent five full recording
days doing it. It was spread out over three months.
AL: Did you all eventually quit your day jobs?
Sean: I was the last one to quit. I quit my job before
we went to Europe about two months ago. Up until March I
was working. Everyone else sort of staggered when they quit
AL: I saw some pictures of you guys in Tel Aviv. When was
Sean: That was the tour for Scavengers. That was a while
ago. Maybe in May 2000.
AL: When did things change for the band when you could
do it full time?
Sean: With us, we have always gotten weird reviews. When
Scavengers came out, Alternative Press called us the number
one band to watch. We have always had this exponential growth.
Time Out has always been supportive of us.
AL: What do you think about all this attention to New York
Sean: It's good to see everyone doing so well. We have
been friends with many of these bands for a long time. There
is no competition. It's good to see your friends doing what
they want to do. You can't control anything. We have never
been a band who really cared about what anyone outside the
band thinks. If someone pays attention to us, great. If
not, we will still be doing it. We don't care about a "New
York" scene. More people have come to see us because
the attention to New York bands. Honestly I don't think
that we really sound like any of those other bands. In the
long run, they will remember a few bands, and a few will
continue to have a long career. I think that we will be
one of those bands.
AL: You were already playing music and playing in New York
clubs before all the attention came.
Sean: Right. By this point we are all older and very level
headed. We are willing to work hard for it. If you are a
twenty year old kid, and all of a sudden you have all these
people throwing money at you. It might sound like a good
time, but five years later, maybe that guy isn't doing music.
AL: Do the guys in Calla have any hobbies?
Sean: I can cook. Aurelio takes photographs. He's a photographer.
Wayne does graphic design. Wayne does all our website stuff.
We want to have a messagebaord but we haven't had any time.
Lately we have barely had any time to even update the tour
dates. We all have our own outlet.
AL: Are you working on a new album soon?
Sean: We are working on some sketches now. We have some
time off in the fall. We want to start working on some demos
so we can start working on a proper next album.
AL: What shows are you playing this summer?
Sean: We are not doing Siren Festival this year. We are
playing July 10th, in New York City at South Street Seaport.
We are playing the Eastern part of the US in June and July.
We are going back to Europe in August to do a bunch of European
festivals. It's great to be appreciated in Europe. We just
played there for six weeks. I was really glad to get back
home. Traveling like that, makes you realize what you really
do like about the US.
AL: Are there any other bands that you like?
Sean: Another good New York band is The Boggs. Another
good Denton band is Lift To Experience. They are one of
these bands who is big in Europe. They play outdoor festivals.
Fans are very dedicated over there.
AL: Have you read any books lately?
Sean: I am reading The Fountainhead. It's really good.
Pete was reading about Jack The Ripper. We went on the Jack
The Ripper tour in East London.
AL: What is your musical background?
Sean: I actually went to school in Dallas for music. I
studied composition. Pete also went to school for music.
Me and Wayne were in a band in high school. And Pete and
Aurelio were in a band in high school. I was in the marching
AL: What does your parents think about the band?
Sean: They are excited. Our video was on MTV, and my mom
couldn't figure out how to work the VCR, so she took a camera
out and started taking pictures of the TV. They have been
AL: Was there any bands that you grew up listening to that
you eventually played with?
Sean: We got to open two shows for Nick Cave and The Bad
Seeds. That was really cool. I used one of his songs for
my wedding song. It's called "The Boat Song."
AL: Do you have any advice for younger people who want
to play music?
Sean: You have to really want to do it. If you are into
it to get famous or party all the time, that is the wrong
reason to be doing music. If you love music, then you should
be doing music. That is the only reason to be doing it.
We are a good band to open people's minds. They might look
at us and think one thing, but you get them in a concert
and maybe they will start looking at music in a different
way. If people are exposed to something good, they will
recognize it for being good.
AL: There is a sophistication with Calla's music. There
is an attention to sound. It's more like a techno band where
there is a musical palette.
Sean: We definitely approach a recording as something that
has to hold up on repeated listens. There has to be a lot
of depth and details to a recording. We always pay attention
to that. The first record is even more dense with ideas.
AL: What is the show like now? Do you play mostly the new
Sean: No, it's about half the new record, and half from
Scavengers. We play one song from the Calla/Walkmen EP.
Most people think that is a new song. We play two or three
songs from the first album. Nobody knows those songs because
nobody has that record. It's out of print. Arena Rock is
going to re-release it in the Fall.