Musician: Arms and Sleepers
Featured Work: Leviathan (In Times Of)
Website: Arms and Sleepers Bandcamp
On April 14, electronic duo Arms and Sleepers posted on Facebook that they had recently released a surprise album, Leviathan (In Times Of). Lead A&S architect Mirza Ramic said the album, pictured above, was “written during my mandatory quarantine in Latvia.” He said he had had to “quickly leave Russia after canceling a few of my remaining shows there and before the borders closed.”
Clocking in at a short-but-sweet 31 minutes, the dark key-based ambience of Leviathan (In Times Of) is a haunting and emotional minimalist photograph taken by a world traveler from inside a global medical nightmare. It’s tantamount to music as journalism, like Janáček or Woody Guthrie with a laptop.
I had the opportunity to speak with Ramic about the album, how it came to be and the effect that the coronavirus lockdown is having on independent musicians and their livelihoods.
First and foremost, the way he ended up in Latvian quarantine – the impetus for Leviathan’s creation – reads like a spy novel.
“I started my tour of Ukraine, Latvia and Russia in early March, and while I could sense that things were getting weird, nothing was actually closed or canceled yet,” Ramic said. He played the Ukrainian leg of the tour and a show in Latvia, but after his third of six scheduled Arms and Sleepers shows in Russia, he heard that some of the countries he had planned to visit after the Russian leg of the tour were closing their borders. With escalating coronavirus concerns locking down countries, Ramic played one more of the six planned shows in Russia and made some hard decisions.
“I had to think quickly and decided to cancel the remaining two shows in Russia so that I could get to Latvia, which is in the European Union (EU), before they closed their borders,” he said. “I had lived in Riga, Latvia, for a few months back in 2017 to write my solo record, so I was familiar with the city and thought that would be the best place to go. I bought a last-minute flight from Moscow to Riga and flew from the last city I played in Russia – Kazan – to Moscow.”
The trip from Moscow to Riga may have been the exact moment that Leviathan was born. Ramic said the Moscow airport was well on its way to desertion, the air heavy with the threat of COVID-19.
“I travel alone all the time, but this time I really felt alone,” he said. “You could feel the weight and the uneasiness of the situation at these airports. It was a surreal 24-hour period, and that was certainly a big part of my desire to work on this album once I got settled in Latvia.”
Ramic ended up on one of the last flights from Moscow to Riga and arrived on March 15, just two days before Latvia closed their borders entirely and canceled all international flights. When he arrived, he said passengers were greeted by medical staff in full-body protective gear. Since he had traveled from abroad, he was placed into mandatory quarantine for two weeks. While he was there, he began to put his experiences and feelings about the coronavirus pandemic to music along with a couple sketches he already had in tow.
“As the situation in the world was deteriorating – and as I began feeling more and more uncertainty, I had the urge to quickly get some of the anxiety out of my system. I had some of the older ideas in the back of my head as pieces that needed the right context to be released, such as the last song on the album, ‘Those Who Labor and Those Who Love,’ while other pieces I wrote from scratch on my little MIDI keyboard.” He counted the moody “How It Was, How It Will Be” and the ethereal “The Very Difficulty of It Is Why You Must” among the latter, while some of the other songs on the album were combinations of existing ideas and new material.
The turnaround on Leviathan was even more rapid than it sounds. Ramic said he spent a week writing the new songs and editing together the pre-existing material, “and then a 24-hour period of mixing.” It was entirely arranged and produced in Latvia, then sent off to Luxembourg-based Victor Ferreira of Sun Glitters for mixing and mastering.
Sonically, Leviathan (In Times Of) is an intriguing and often lonesome endeavor. Although Ramic attests that it was made entirely on his laptop in Reason and Ableton with his MIDI keyboard, most of it sounds more like he recorded it on a piano in a 200-year-old church, microphone and ivories placed at opposite ends of the chapel. All nine tracks are loosely structured, with reverb-heavy keyboard lines that tumble and shift around nervously. It’s like if you kidnapped the piano parts from Radiohead’s “Glass Eyes” or “Fitter Happier,” then forced them Clockwork Orange-style to watch footage of this spring’s empty city streets in London and Montreal. It’s a rarity for the band, who have often focused on albums with downtempo or trip-hop elements, though Ramic was quick to point out that two previous Arms and Sleepers releases – 2007’s Cinematique and 2011’s Nostalgia for the Absolute – also shared dark ambient qualities.
Thematically, the album is clearly not just put together during the coronavirus pandemic but also written about it. The keyboards often exude isolation and uncertainty – the occasional trappings of Roger Waters-esque dialogue clips make it even more lonely (is it any wonder that songs ended up with titles like “Good Luck to Us All”?). However, the other side of the coin is optimism, which shines through at unexpected points throughout the album.
“Unlike in the past, we have Internet and we can actually maintain a sense of togetherness despite technology’s limitations,” Ramic said. “This album was definitely a way for me to release anxiety and feelings of uncertainty. I think one other emotion that I wanted to convey was hope, because difficult times always carry hope on their back. That may not be apparent from the fairly dark and moody sound of the album, but for me, hope is always found in darkness – and confronting darkness and adversity directly is the ultimate expression of hope.”
One thing that listeners won’t find on the record is politics. Ramic said that in recent years, Arms and Sleepers have felt freer to express their political views here and there, but the American government’s hotly-contested handling of the coronavirus outbreak didn’t influence Leviathan. According to him, “I think for me this was a very personal testimony of my journey and of being far away from home, family and friends.”
—INVESTMENT WITHOUT RETURN
Ramic told me that offering Leviathan as a surprise release gave him a sense of freedom. “[It] didn’t carry with it the stress of a marketing campaign / album promo cycle / extreme advance planning. I work in the music industry and make music for a living, and there is always this stress of when and how to release an album. This time, I just didn’t care about it at all and released music because it felt like the right thing to do. So in that regard, this album became a brutally honest release with no marketing pretense of any kind.”
Ramic’s work as a professional musician put him in a unique position to discuss one of the most difficult situations regarding bands during the global pandemic: how lockdowns, social distancing, stay-at-home orders and travel bans are affecting their livelihood.
Pelagic Records, who have released several Arms and Sleepers albums, posted on Facebook in March about this problem, which hits self-sufficient artists harder than you may think. That post said, “All of these bands have prepared for the tours which were cancelled…they rented vans, booked flights, drove long distances to the tour start and now have to return home after only a few shows. They ordered merchandise and are now sitting on a bunch of stock which must be paid but won’t be sold any time soon. These are difficult times for artists and self-employed creatives making a living off of music. Please support the bands who won’t have an income in the following weeks.”
Ordinarily those expenses are recuperated through ticket and merch sales, but – much like restaurants sitting on an excess of food waiting to be cooked – artists are now stocked up on inventory and facing down bans on public gatherings that are killing in-person sales. Arms and Sleepers not only had to cancel their final two shows in Russia in March – one in Ekaterinburg on the 15th, the other in Kaliningrad on the 20th – but also a monthlong European tour that would have begun in mid-April and a Central American tour in late May that would have taken them to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica.
To help absorb some of the financial damage, Pelagic Records made a move in March to offer some of their most affected bands’ digital releases on Bandcamp on a Name Your Price through the end of that month. Arms and Sleepers and labelmates Årabrot, Astrosasur, Herod, Hypno5e, Neck of the Woods, SÅVER, The Shaking Sensations and Pelagic founders The Ocean Collective had albums go on sale for the final two weeks of March. However, nothing can quite make up for shows that don’t come to pass.
“I would say canceled tours are the major disruption for me, which is especially difficult with so many new releases out this year. Touring is still one of the best ways to promote new music and sell merchandise, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be possible again until 2021. The financial setback stemming from canceled shows and tours is simple: thousands of dollars of lost income. But because I do most things myself –“ Ramic listed booking, managing, performing and writing the music – “it’s also countless hours of booking tours, promoting shows, managing travel logistics and coordinating every single detail of a tour with concert organizers and other artists.
“It’s just a lot of work, and all that is now for nothing.”
Ramic lamented that all that work will have to be done again if he’s able to reschedule shows in most of those countries, but he has a lingering concern that if he schedules make-up shows this fall or winter and another wave of COVID-19 surges, he’ll have to cancel yet again. It’s a dangerous prospect for any musical act – a second wave of lost time and money could cause some bands to go bust.
—PROLIFICACY IN QUARANTINE
If there’s a silver lining to this cloud, the pandemic has freed up some time for the band to manage their 2020 release schedule. Leviathan may have come as a surprise to fans and the band itself, but part of what makes it so unexpected is that Arms and Sleepers already has other albums coming out this year – six, to be exact.
Take a look at their Bandcamp page and you’ll notice that their January release Safe Area Earth is described as “First in a six-part music series to be released throughout 2020.” The second part takes the form of an EP called Eastern Promises, which released on April 3, followed by Memory Loops, released on July 30. Three releases remain this year. Ramic cited self-destruction as the theme of all six albums, adding that the pandemic hasn’t shifted his perspective on the remaining in-progress releases in the series.
“In some ways the coronavirus outbreak affected these releases in a positive way – namely, I have more time to work on new music,” Ramic said. “The six releases were on top of about six months of touring in 2020, so time was tight and I was struggling to keep up with everything. The unplanned break from being on the road has meant more time in one place to focus on these releases, which is certainly nice.” This silver lining is reminiscent of their new album itself. Leviathan (In Times Of) offers an honest snapshot of difficult times – through hardships brought on by the disease spread, Mirza Ramic and Max Lewis have faced uncertainty in search of the good. Amid the loneliness, isolation and fear of the novel coronavirus, shimmers of hope and togetherness make appearances when we need them the most.