A common theme persists throughout Max Lewis' discussion of his Cambridge, Mass.-based electronic duo, Arms and Sleepers: doing what feels right.
"We do whatever comes to us, whatever we enjoy at the moment, and that varies," he said, in more than one way, on more than one occasion.
This informs every choice Lewis and Mirza Ramic make as they create music. Their intuitive sensibilities are sharp: Their music is consistently cinematic, subtle, beautiful and arresting.
Trusting their gut has led to all sorts of changes and fluctuations in the artistic project that is Arms and Sleepers. The story of how Lewis and Ramic began working together as musicians seemed boring to them, so they made up a new story, one that more accurately matched their music, involving a dying man in a dark alley listening to music--music that lives on and becomes a soundtrack for the man's death.
The name is another case in point: There's the real story, and the one that feels more accurate. "Mirza came up with this," explained Lewis. "It refers to, in tough situations, (how) some people take up arms and fight for things, and some people just ignore it and sleep. It's the balance of what people do when push comes to shove."
The mythology behind Arms and Sleepers goes a long way in helping to describe their music. "We're influenced a lot by film, so there's always a sort of overarching story or theme that goes throughout our music," explained Lewis. The dying man in the alley story is cinematic, and brings up how music can inform the dramatics of a situation. The name story gives an epic weight to the music. Arms and Sleepers are fascinated by the emotional connection between sound and image: They make music that feels right for a certain scene, mood, image, idea. That's what Lewis means when he says that film influences his and Ramic's music.
"When you watch a movie you enjoy, and there's not necessarily music going on, you might hear something in your head and just say, 'I like what's going on here; I like the way this looks; I feel like there should be some sounds here,'" he explained--in other words, creating the music that feels right for that visual in that particular moment.
"Or you're struck by a scene, or a theme of the movie, and you just want to work on music," he continued. "There have been a couple of songs where we have taken a scene from a movie and looped it on our computer, and as we were playing music, we were looking at it. Without sound, of course."
The pieces they create are soundtracks, aural representations of visual images. Because, really, as Lewis pointed out, music is almost never experienced just through the ears alone.
"Both Mirza and I definitely like music, but I think we almost like music better when it's in a film or with video. Not that music can't be on its own--and sometimes, it can be great on its own--but the combination of the two is just so effective most of the time that it almost feels like you're losing something when it's just music," he said. "Most of the time, when you're listening to music anyway, you're looking at something, unless you're going to sleep and listening to music. But if you're listening to music on your headphones as you're traveling the subway or the bus or walking somewhere, there's always a visual stimulus."
For their live show, Arms and Sleepers create this kind of multimedia experience: They project images a friend of theirs has created, based on the images or ideas Lewis and Ramic had in mind when they wrote the songs.
Because of these ideas that inform their music, calling them a "band" just doesn't feel right.
"We normally say we're a band, but I don't think that's the proper word for it," Lewis agreed. "That's one of the things we've struggled with. Also, (we struggle) when people ask us, 'What kind of music do we play?' I mean, it might be easy enough to say electronic, and I think that's normally what we say--ambient electronic--but we've done stuff like more modern classical stuff, and we've done more sort of poppy music.
"We do whatever comes to us, whatever we enjoy at the moment, and that varies. That's been one of the toughest things: defining what we are and what kind of music we play."