The Building’s Anthony Lamarca on how illness, dissonance and his dog inspired new album, Petra
The War On Drugs’ guitarist explains the unique and difficult process behind his second album, the challenges of making a record from a hospital room, and why everyone should walk a dog every morning.
Image: David Pokrivnak
In the video for Purifier, the gentle, almost spiritual first single from The Building’s new album, Anthony Lamarca sits in a chair in a hospital room, staring off into the distance with an IV hooked into his arm. It’s a stark, bleak, unflinching image, but also one that has incredible significance for Lamarca and the album itself, Petra.
In the midst of completing The Building’s first album, Lamarca – who splits his time between his solo projects and his gig as guitarist in The War On Drugs – felt a pain in his back and went to the doctor. The pain turned out to be a symptom of multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. Anthony immediately sought treatment, the cancer went into full remission, and he released the critically acclaimed Reconciliation was released in 2017.
The guitarist recovered to take part in the recording and touring for The War On Drugs’ Grammy-winning fourth album, A Deeper Understanding, and soon Lamarca was thinking about going back into the studio with The Building, which he creates with the help of his brother Angelo and wife Megan.
“We started recording it in the middle of the last The War On Drugs album cycle, just at home in between tours,” he recalls, but then life once again got in the way.
“Halfway through all of that, the disease flared up again. It wasn’t unexpected, necessarily, that’s just kind of the way that this disease goes – you have to switch treatments trying to keep it under control. So, while it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, it was also a fairly big lifestyle change, because then instead of just taking a pill, I had to go get treatment – I had to get an IV once a week, which was a pain in the ass!
“Because you’re sitting there for a couple of hours, I would spend my time working on these songs and listening to them. And naturally, just having to deal with the fact that after two years of nothing, to have the disease come back it’s obviously a bit of mental and emotional warfare, because you have to accept ‘Alright this is still a thing – I’m not out of the woods yet.’”
Man’s Best Friend
The spectre of Anthony’s disease, can be felt powerfully throughout the record, which was named Petra after his beloved German shepherd, who was a constant source of support and normalcy for the Lamarca clan in a deeply unordinary time. This craving for normalcy is a recurring theme on the record, perhaps most starkly on When I Think Of You, when he sings, ‘I just want to be boring again’.
“That’s pretty much 100 per cent it, that line,” he admits. I just want to be boring again… just an uneventful guy! Where the album ended up after all that stuff was in this place of just trying to find peace in all this stuff y’know? That’s where the whole ‘Petra’ thing comes into play.”
The ‘Petra thing’ relates to the dual meaning of the album’s title – in addition to referring to his dog, the word is also an acronym for ‘Peace’s Eternal Truth Renews All’, and a symbol of Lamarca’s desire to find comfort in accepting things that are out of your hands.
“Like, this stuff is crazy and the only thing I could do to deal with it in a healthy way was to acknowledge that it was out of my control,” Anthony explains. “Ultimately, I just had to seek peace, not only in my own life, but also in all of my other relationships, and appreciate the real beauty of that.”
Part of this was process was accepting that while the songs he’s created as The Building might not have originally been intended to reflect the circumstances he lived through over the last four years, they’ve ended up being extremely poignant.
“The big thing with this and the last record is the things that get transformed in a weird way,” he explains. “The things that I wrote about someone else or some other situation that suddenly became about me. With the last record, I was writing a lot of songs about my dad, and he found out he had MS at around about the same age I was when I found out that I was sick. So these songs that I’d written about him, all of a sudden became about me as well.
“Nick Cave says about the prophetic nature of songs, that they’ll tell you the story before you even know what you’re telling in this wild way, which I thought was a very wise observation.”
Bring The Noise
Petra is a record that demands your attention – the album’s sparse, delicate musicianship a perfectly gossamer foil to the haunting, impassioned vocals that he lays over the top. But this wasn’t always how he intended the album to pan out.
“I feel like most records end up in a different place from where you start, which I think is a good thing,” he reflects. “It’s cool if you have a vision, you can be like, ‘No, this is exactly what I want. And that’s great, but 99 per cent of the time, when you let something change in a way that you weren’t expecting, or that you wouldn’t do naturally, it almost always ends up being more interesting.”
A textbook example of this is approach is When I Think Of You, which was originally envisioned as a much more raucous affair.
“There’s a half-recorded version of that where it was really heavy, with drums pounding in almost a Velvet Underground kind of thing,” Anthony reveals. “But it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that it isn’t really the way to go. So instead I thought it might be interesting to just try the complete opposite! What if we kept the guitar feedback element, but then use a picked acoustic? And I got my friend Josh Stanford to do a really beautiful cello arrangement, that my wife played. And it turned into more of what the song needed.”
If the album itself is more restrained and gentle than planned, there is a recurring motif of screaming, howling feedback that bubbles up out of nowhere, almost like a metaphor for the unwanted intrusion of the disease back into his life.
“I got that by plugging my Jaguar straight into a Guyatone Hot Drive,” Anthony explains. “We were on tour with the Drugs in Birmingham, and we found this really great guitar shop, I can’t remember what it’s called. But the only thing I ended up getting was this cool old strap from the 70s, and this Guyatone fuzz pedal, which was like 30 bucks.
“And I plugged it in and it was just that feedback sound – that’s kind of all it does! But I was like, ‘Yep, I need this!’ So that was the signal chain for all feedback – the Hot Drive, straight into the Ampeg Gemini 2, very loud!
“Despite the band that I play in, I’m not like the biggest pedal guy in the world. With gear in general, I’m pretty boring – I find the thing that I like, and I stick with it. I want to be the guy that has like 20 guitars on tour and like constantly switching up… but at the end of the day, like 90 per cent of the time, I end up just using my Gretsch Anniversary, because I always want everything to sound like that!
“But I definitely had a concerted effort on this record to add a little bit more dissonance. My typical go-to, is to write quiet pretty music, so I had to add a little something to throw it off-kilter a little bit!”
Ultimately, Petra is held together by Lamarca’s acoustic guitar playing, with his delicate fingerpicked parts being provided by another family connection…
“I borrowed my mother-in-law’s old Gibson nylon-string, which actually sonically informed a lot of the record,” Anthony observes. “That was the one sonic thing that I had in my head: ‘I want to use classical guitar, instead of just a steel-string acoustic’. So I borrowed hers – she has a C-1, it’s probably not the nicest old Gibson acoustic – hers is like a ’67 or something, and it was the student model. But it’s just perfect for this, and was kind of a big part of writing this record.”
Having the creation of two consecutive records disrupted by a serious illness, you might expect Anthony to be frustrated or even bitter about the hand life has dealt him of late, but instead he displays a peace and gratitude that is truly admirable.
“When you have a major health issue, especially a type of cancer, you have no choice but to confront your mortality in a way that people don’t really choose to do,” he explains of his outlook on life. “In a weird way, it’s a pretty amazing gift.
“When I first was diagnosed with there was obviously an incredible amount of fear and uncertainty. But pretty quickly – like after two weeks – I remember I had this revelation of, ‘What am I afraid of right now? Am I afraid of dying?’ Because that is life. The second you’re born, you begin the process of dying – every single person, that’s the deal. It’s like, everything that is born at some point will die.
“And that’s just natural – life is finite and it could happen to anyone at any moment. And so, recognising that reality as simply that – removing it from the emotion of a tragedy or something that’s unfair or harsh. And just being like, ‘Oh, no, that was always the deal!’ It just helped me bring focus to my life in a way that was based around being present in this moment because it’s the only moment that anyone is ever guaranteed. And it ended up being a really beautiful gift because I’ve just been able to appreciate things in my life a little more.”
And part of that gift is the album’s namesake – a four-legged friend who’s enthusiastic barks pepper our conversation, and whose impact on Anthony’s recovery can’t be understated.
“My dog has been a huge part of where I got to,” Anthony concludes. “Because dogs are 100 per cent present – they’re not worrying about what’s happening in three months. They don’t know what three months is! She just wakes up and it’s like, ‘Hi! I’m here! I’m hungry! I love you! Let’s go to the park!’ I’m actually driving to the park with her right now!
“But going through recovery, she was that one constant – she was kind of our rock. Even though our life was in chaos, she needed a routine, and therefore she was also giving me that routine. I don’t even know what I would have done it without starting every day walking through the woods, slowly watching the seasons change. Being able to have an hour immersed in nature every morning – I think everyone should start their day that way.”
The Building’s new album, Petra, is out now on Concord Records.