By Jenn Pelly
Sonic Youth’s Hoboken pad, Echo Canyon West, is like Candyland for indie rockers. Past the warehouse’s emerald-colored door-- marked only by an Ecstatic Peace! sticker-- is a dim recording sanctuary, packed with equipment from the mid-'80s. The space has served as their studio, practice space, and storage closet for five years, but on this gray Friday in March, Thurston, Kim, and Lee are nowhere to be found.
Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, however, sits on a couch in the control room, donning tiny specs and a smart sweater over a collared shirt. Behind him, past a glass window, the studio’s live room is crowded with instruments; the walls are flecked with guitars. Shelley taps his foot to a freshly recorded take from Spectre Folk, the 16-year-old project of Magik Markers drummer Pete Nolan. The group has spent the past three hours recording at Echo Canyon, where they also tracked their recent Woodsist EP, The Blackest Medicine II-- a follow-up to Nolan's 2007 Woodsist debut, The Blackest Medicine. The new EP moves between sunny psych-pop and burning guitar solos, taste-testing the Canyon’s offerings with hypnotic gong crashes, Vibraphone drones, and melancholic piano parts.
Nolan, wearing thick black glasses and a denim jacket, speaks of “sculpting,” “clay,” and “paintings” when describing his musical textures and rhythms. He is an experimental music vet in his own right, citing influences as widely varied as Dead C, Turkish psych, free jazz, and outsider folk. Nolan releases “homemade masterpieces of epic psych” on his own label, Arbitrary Signs. And he’s also appeared on the past two Woods records, including-- you guessed it-- “September with Pete,” a nine-minute sprawl on 2009's Songs of Shame.
For the last EP and Spectre Folk's upcoming LP on Shelley’s new Vampire Blues label, Nolan has expanded the line-up to include Shelley on drums, Tall Firs guitarist/vocalist and Sonic Youth sound engineer, Aaron Mullan on bass, and cookbook author Peter Meehan, a former Times restaurant columnist, on guitar. After a listen to a mixdown of the day’s work, the dad talk commences; Nolan recently welcomed his first daughter into the world, and the group spends a few minutes comparing child bedroom decorations. Later, Meehan, Nolan and I drive to Manhattan’s East Village to talk about Spectre Folk’s history, Mark Ibold, and how the Woodsist Festival in Big Sur inspired their recent EP.
AZ: You started Spectre Folk in 1995, and put out your first 7-inch shortly thereafter. How has the project evolved since?
Nolan: In 1995, I got a 4-track and started to make recordings at home in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. I was doing blown-out songs with a microphone and a distortion pedal overdriven into the tape recorder-- stuff with shortwave radios and ambient sounds, sticking a mic out the window, picking up morning doves, having that be a texture. The first Blackest Medicine record was home-recorded at my crappy apartment in Bushwick. A lot was loner folky stuff. The goal was to put as much sound onto the cassette as possible, so that each part would inhabit its frequency fully. The first Spectre Folk live band was with my wife in 2007. She played keys and synth; my friend Johnny drummed. We toured England and had Mick Flower, from Vibracathedral Orchestra. That got us into some heavy noise/psych-- that ecstatic, jamming warmth.
Then [last year], I made another solo record for my label called Compass, Blanket, Lantern, Mojo. I got a digital 8-track and used a lot of tape samples. I made field recordings out on the track where I went running in Greenpoint. Peter [Meehan] started coming to my shows. I knew him through my wife, because she’s a jeweler, and worked with [Meehan’s] partner, who is also a jeweler. [Meehan] was buying up my CD-Rs, and was like, "This shit is really good. You should be making vinyl records. I’ll give you the money." I recruited Meehan to play guitar; we started jamming, and eventually got Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullan to play with us.
AZ: How did you recruit Steve?
Meehan: We had just lost our bass player and drummer. One day, Mark Ibold was over my house [in Manhattan] making hamburgers. We’ve become really good buddies. Mark bartends at the Great Jones on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and I’ve been going there since I moved to New York. Mark actually did the food styling on a cookbook I put out. So he was over making burgers-- he makes excellent burgers-- and he was like, "You should ask Steve Shelley." And we were like, "Steve Shelley does not want to play with us." [Laughs] Pete went home and told Julie, his wife, and she beat him up for two days until he Facebook messaged Steve. That was March 2010.
AZ: Pete, you already knew Steve by that point. Right?
Nolan: Yeah. The day I got my first 4-track, I drove forty miles through some corn fields and went to this store in Michigan in the middle of fucking nowhere. And Steve was there, just shopping for drums. I was a kid, and I was like, "Holy shit! I think that’s the drummer from Sonic Youth." I made him take a picture; I still have it somewhere. Beyond that, Magik Markers did a pretty big tour with Sonic Youth, when Markers were totally free-form. I think a lot of people hated us and just wanted to see Sonic Youth.
AZ: What gave you the idea to record a follow-up to The Blackest Medicine LP?
Nolan: Peter and I played duo in Big Sur last year at the Woodsist Festival. We were like, “Oh, we’re playing the Woodsist Festival,” so we took an old song I did for Woodsist ["The Blackest Medicine"] and sped it up, so it would sound kind of like The Clean. Markers went through a long thing, where everything was power electronics. To come from that into this bright, sunshine-y psychedelic music, and play a set in the middle of the day with the sun shining through the Red Wood trees… That festival was amazing. I was really into Moon Duo and Real Estate. Jeremy was like, “I want to put out a 7-inch of that song, the sped-up version.” That’s how this record happened. I let my brain get really poppy. “Black Meds” has that New Zealand pop action, and “Keep your Teeth Clean” was inspired by a dream with a Beatles song.
AZ: Did you use any particularly sweet gear out at Echo Canyon?
Nolan: On “4thD Refs,” we flipped the two-inch reel over to reverse a guitar solo that Meehan cut. I used an old Moog synth on “Keep yr Teeth Clean.” We also used their grand piano and arsenal of gongs. We used their plate reverb unit, which is longer than this [five foot] table-- a really dense and massive reverb sound, super lush. I'm into the Vibraphone sound. I wanna tap into that for the next record, too. I think we'll throw some Vox Continental Organ in there, too. They got it off Steve Reich.
AZ: You’ve spent time in several different experimental scenes across the country. How has living in places like Massachusetts and Kentucky influenced your music?
Nolan: In 1999, I lived in Hartford, CT. An hour north, in Florence, MA, Byron Coley was putting on great shows at his and Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Yod Space, which is this mammoth warehouse of books and records. That zone was a rich, deep, nourishing river of free music and poetry. I put up a flyer at the Yod looking for dudes to jam with and [percussionist and recent Bjork collaborator] Chris Corsano answered. We used to jam free guitar-and-drums duos in my apartment in Hartford. In 2001 I lived, in Northampton, MA. Fucking amazing, inspirational time. Was jamming a ton with the Markers, solo as Spectre Folk, and with Shackamaxon. There was almost nothing to do but see shows and jam with friends.
In 2002, I moved to Louisville, KY, and joined up with a 12-20-piece free jazz freak-band called Sapat. Practices were endless, all-night party jams. I formed the duo Virgin Eye Blood Brothers [with Kris Abplanalp]. We played synths, tapes, and acoustic guitars in live happenings that sometimes worked out very well musically. I was sitting on my couch in Louisville when I got a call asking Markers to tour with Sonic Youth. The first date coincided with me moving to Bushwick, in 2004, where I lived with Carlos Giffoni, whose No Fun Fest we played the year before. I also played with a band [in Brooklyn] called GHQ, and was jamming with Vanishing Voice, who mostly turned into Woods. Russ [of Blues Control] suggested I do a record with Woodsist. I think that was the fourth LP Jeremy did.
AZ: How do you think the next record, for Steve’s label, will be different from The Blackest Medicine II?
Nolan: So far Steve has only done [Michael Rother's Neu! tribute band with Steve and Aaron "Hallogallo"] 7-inch; last summer, Steve and Aaron were playing with him. The first track we cut was “Inchin’ Worm.” I was embedded in the Keith Richards book when I wrote it, checking out YouTubes of Keith singing Merle Haggard songs. I was trying to write a song with a healthy amount of play between singing and guitaring-- a call-and-response like Chuck Berry. So far this record is more spaced-out, extended, and expanded.
AZ: How has your daughter responded to your music?
Nolan: She got into it when I sang the ice cream truck melody today. As far as my own songs go, if I play “Burning Bridge” [from Compass] when she’s sleeping, she always wakes up and starts crying. She likes to sing with me when I have the echo-y microphone turned on though. I appreciate music a lot more now, because it’s completely my own thing, you know? Whereas most of my time is spent caring for another person. It’s not like when I was in my twenties and just jamming all the time. Music becomes more of a really special thing.
Blackest Medicine II is out now on Woodsist