We Speak in Colors, pseudonym of American musician Andrew Armstrong, brings out the bummed out and misunderstood teen in all of us and we're not complaining.
What inspired you to begin your musical journey?
When I was in 7th grade my older brother was a senior in high school. And he had a car- a jeep that took too long to defrost. For that one year we went to school in the same building, so instead of taking the dreaded bus, I got to be escorted by him. That year shifted everything. After scraping ice off the windshield, we'd huddle in the car and for those 15 minutes driving into school every day, I existed somewhere else. I got to hear music, for the first time (and at the right time), that collided with whatever was bouncing around my brain and insides. This tilted how I saw myself in the world. Suddenly I felt like I had my own little secret; like I found this planet that no one else knew about. I’d find out a year later that a lot of people knew about it and those people would become my people. The Beatles, Rage Against the Machine, Third Eye Blind, Less Than Jake.
The next year, I discovered a new wave of punk/indie/emo music with the help of a few friends. That's when music started to become my own. It was tangible. There was a community with shows and a record store and a friend’s basement and the internet. That year I convinced my parents to loan me cash for a drum set (paid it back mowing lawns the next summer) and started my first band with two of my best friends the same day. We covered songs at first, and later, using the songs we learned as guides, started exploring how to form our own songs. I was always drawn to song structure, chord progressions, and words so I eventually started picking up the acoustic guitar my brother had borrowed from his girlfriend’s brother. Thanks to the world wibe web, I was able to look up chords to my favorite songs. I was off. As soon as I learned four chords I was writing my own parts and a few “songs”. It didn’t feel like much of a decision. Just felt like what I should do. it wasn't until university that I really immersed myself in it. Spending hours walking around Pittsburgh, hopping the bus to different neighborhoods all the while devouring records via my iPod. I wasn’t just listening, I was studying. I was gathering. Sophomore year of college I really dove into writing. I had my own room and would just hide out and play. I kept it pretty close to home, writing in my bedroom and dorm room. I'm reserved and shy by nature so I didn’t feel drawn to the stage outside of just being a rhythm guitarist or bassist in a band. I was by no means a front man. After a few years of being in couple different bands and playing a few open mics solo, I realized that I didn’t like playing my songs onstage. So I stopped. I decided I would just write and record. That’s what I did for the next 6 years.
After education school (I skipped a bunch of time but this isn’t a memoir), I moved to Nashville and in my last year there (spent 3 total), through a few friendships, things started shifting. For the first time I felt confident in what I did and realized that this obsession wasn't going away. I recorded a couple songs with an amazing producer there, Mike Marsh, and started booking shows under the name 'we speak in colors'. I can’t explain how or why the flip was switched; why I went from hating being in front of people to craving it, but it happened. After performing a bunch during my last 6 months in Nashville, I played a handful of shows in Chicago and the Pacific Northwest before moving to the UAE. Because I had started to build some momentum pretty quickly, it was a tough transition. I went from constantly being immersed in a dynamic music community and infrastructure to being flat-lined. I had to start from scratch. After two and a half years, I feel like I’m getting closer to the pulse here. There’s so much inspiration around, you just gotta get your hands dirty.
What do you think of Soundcloud as a platform for someone who is posting from Dubai?
Hmmm. In general, I use Soundcloud strictly from the artist side. I’ve never used it as a discovery tool or as a go-to listening platform. Unless it’s embedded as a premiere on a blog (which is a useful way to use it). But I know lots of people do use it in other ways. I get some plays, so someone is using it. It’s simple to maintain and convenient for sharing private tracks with friends/my mom. It seems like here it’s the most talked about medium for people to exchange music. For example, after a show I’ve been asked, “Are you on Soundcloud?” or “What’s your Soundcloud?” That would never happen to me at home. It probably does for more electronic leaning artists or DJs/producers, which it’s more geared to in the states. At least from my point of view.
I like it a lot as an artist, but personally, as a freak listener, I generally go to Spotify, YouTube, or Bandcamp before there.
What message do you hope to send across with your music?
Our interests and passions seem to just show up, so I don't try to overthink it as far as having some mission or purpose with it. Just doing it is enough. I’m in love with the process. Writing/documenting is compulsive to me; to the point of obsession sometimes. I just want to document and archive thoughts, conversations, words, and phrases that hit me and maybe fellow neurotic folks will have a moment with it; hear something that has crossed their mind or subconscious, but were never able to put words to it.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
I promise I won’t ramble too much. I know, this is all pretty predictable (31 year old white dude from small-town Pennsylvania who writes melancholy songs). Death Cab for Cutie, all things Conor Oberst Bright Eyes / solo), Sufjan Stevens. Anything Richard Edwards does (Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s / solo stuff). The Strokes. The Killers. Modest Mouse, Owen, David Bazan, Counting Crows, Phosphorescent. And more recently, Lorde.
Gonna stop myself here before it gets out of control.
From what people have told me after shows or after hearing a recording, it seems like some of those influences are a bit obvious in my songs, which doesn’t bother me. Some people think I would get offended when they tell me they think I sound like someone. I’m just like, “Yea, I’m sure I ripped it off somehow.” You can’t really control how much or how little or even what you pull from things. A film or song or image can sneak and get engrained in you, and after going through your filter of quirks, it comes out its own thing. But there’s gonna be a trace of something. I love hearing that in artists I love.
With the artists I mentioned, I always circle back to all of them at some point in the year and it’s like you’re discovering them for the first time. You’re seeing it through a new lens of whatever the your current situation is. They’re the go-tos that spark something.
You have performed in multiple different places, which spot still has your heart?
There’s a couple that stand out. I’m crazy about the Pacific Northwest in the US. Growing up in the Northeast, it feels like another country. A lot of us daydream regularly about getting out there (it’s far!) and the summer before moving to the UAE I was finally able to. I landed in Portland, spent a few days there (walking on the moon), played a show, and then took the train through the pines to Olympia, Washington and played a house show there. Then went to my friend’s place in Tacoma for a couple days and back on the train to play in Seattle. It was incredible. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, the cities I grew up with, are harsh. They’re cold and fast, and dark. And, at times, unfriendly. I felt a weight lifted off me when I landed in the PNW. It still had enough similarities in landscape to feel familiar, but the vibe was totally shifted. I have a feeling I’ll live out there someday.
Thinking internationally, Gdansk, Poland and Amsterdam, Netherlands are on top. I played a pumpernickel-factory-turned-weird-art-space called WL4 in Gdansk. Thanks to the promoters/owners (and meeting folks my first two days there), the room wasn’t empty. People were engaged. We had a BBQ after and sipped vodka on the street for hours. I totally got sucked in by the sidewalks and industrial area and café culture. Will return one day.
In Amsterdam I played at Vondelbunker, a literal bunker under a bridge in Vondel Park (think Central Park). Again, somehow there were a bunch of people in the room and the crew that ran the strange DIY space were amazing. Once everyone trickled out, we locked ourselves in the venue and had a time. After a magical walk back to my host’s house (one of the volunteers at the space), we chatted about before calling it a night. Such a great city. Clean, efficient, and weird/entrancing, once away from the bee-hive center. And the colors!
What's the meaning behind your moniker, 'We Speak in Colors'?
While at home for a few days over fall break during my second year of college, I was having a conversation with a dear friend. See, fall is a heavy time in Northeast USA for neurotic people like myself. It’s getting cold, the leaves have fallen, it gets dark earlier, and having winter staring you down is like having an anxiety-attack on call at all times. My friend and I were rambling about the weight of October and November and how each season has such distinct colors and aesthetic. From that, the phrase “we speak in colors” popped in my head, so I wrote it down. It seems like I came from my infatuation with landscape and seasons and how it’s characteristics (mostly colors and temperatures) affect mood. Later that year when having to name the file of a song I recorded in a friend’s upstairs apartment, that phrase showed back up. It felt right. So for the next decade I used it and haven’t stopped.
Finally, what's your favourite type of cake?
I’ll eat a cheesecake any time any day. Also can’t forget this graham cracker/banana cake my grandma used to make.