[Photo by Megan Mack]
By Emilie Friedlander
The musician, video artist, and perennial drifter James Ferraro first appeared in my life in the form of an idea, passed on by a college friend of mine who had spent a few months couch-surfing with him during a semester abroad in Berlin. We were sitting in his mother’s SUV, listening to a slowed down version of “We Are On The Race Track,” a minor chart hit by the ‘80s Jamaican soul diva Precious Wilson. James had gotten my friend in the habit of playing old vinyl ‘45s at 33 speed and dubbing signal onto reams of warped cassette tape, and I remember being transfixed for the first time by the sound of a pop song in slow motion. The singer’s muscular alto had transformed into a mournful, slothful baritone; the upbeat disco instrumentals seemed to sag under their own weight. It was like uncovering a second song, a second existence, that lay dormant in the first.
If he does not suddenly decide to fall off the radar completely, James Ferraro will be remembered alongside folks like Ariel Pink, R. Stevie Moore, John Maus, and Spencer Clark as one of the musicians who, at the turn of the 21st century, elevated the crackle and grain of low-fidelity recording to a field of aesthetic exploration. They claimed outmoded technologies like the 4-track and the tape deck as their own, and made the vocabulary of pop music and the preoccupations of the avant-garde seem a lot less incompatible than much of the previous century had implied.
The particulars of James Ferraro’s biography escape even those who have lived and worked closely with him, and he would probably be more inclined to tell you a fiction about his own life than a couple straight facts about his working process. What we do know about James is that he was born in Rochester, NY sometime in the mid-‘80s, and was raised by a father who once ran a heavy metal radio show and worked in the legendary instrument and pedal emporium in that city called House of Guitars. According to Todd Ledford, founder of the New York label Olde English Spelling Bee, an innate affinity for travel has prompted James to settle, consecutively and for months at a time, in San Diego, San Francisco, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Ohio, New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, San Diego, New York, Belgium, New York, Los Angeles, New York, and Los Angeles. Explaining his most recent change in location, Ferraro told AZ's Samantha Cornwell earlier this year that he wanted to try his hand at being a Hollywood action movie star. One more plausible explanation in circulation is that he moved for reasons of the heart; another that he and Ariel Pink are working on an album together.
Ferraro’s most iconic features are his short, fluffy afro and his missing front tooth, which he says he shattered with a BB gun when he was a kid. In his quarter century on this Earth, he has released some 25 albums, splits, and cassettes under his own name, 25 more as one half of The Skaters (his band with fellow sound collagist Spencer Clark), and countless others under various pseudonyms. He has no website, did not have a reliable phone number until recently, and has a bothersome habit of not showing up at his own concerts. Aside from the occasional tongue-in-cheek foray into straight-ahead pop-punk (as in 2010’s Night Dolls With Hairspray), James Ferraro’s muddy sound collages are as hybrid, unpredictable, and compassless as your typical drift down the information highway-- especially if your designated road markers are ‘80s radio rock, video game music, and campy b-movies of the Street Trash variety. What unifies his work is a consistent impression of overhearing somebody turning a static-y radio dial in the apartment next door-- of being struck by the familiarity of a strain here and there, but never being able to concretely identify any of it (I'm pretty sure Ledford once told me that Ferraro has never sampled other people's songs).
I met up with "the man with the moon-lit pompadour" in late October, a few hours after he had kicked off the first night of the Neon Marshmallow Fest at Brooklyn's Public Assembly. I was there to chat with him about his recently Zoned In Far Side Virtual LP, which, as Michael McGregor explains, pretty much pulls the rug out from under any descriptions of his work like the above. Ferraro's Hippos In Tanks debut is clear as a bell, constructed greatly from what sounds like cheesy MIDI presets, and melodic to an almost comic extreme. After finishing an interview with Elle magazine, he took a walk with me down to a small manicured park at the foot of The Edge, a massive, glass-paned condo complex on the Williamsburg waterfront. As actual condo pets trotted by on designer leashes, we talked about life in Los Angeles, far side virtual reality, and what was actually going on in his head when he recorded the LP. (Hint: Far Side is a record about 2011).
[photos by Coley Brown]
By Ric Leichtung
Prince Rama is a band that's widely respected in the underground for their high energy performances and inimitable sound. But even after being in the band for more than five years, songwriter and keys player Taraka Larson still feels that "people [...] often misunderstand us." One respected but in this case hilariously off-base critic called them the harbingers of "the real witch house sound" on the grounds that they actually sounded like witches (rly?). Taking a look at their artwork and press photos, you'll notice a few reoccurring motifs that would make a blog troll's mouth water: occult imagery, clearly staged photos, and maybe my personal least favorite thing ever, glitter (editor's tangent: have you ever hosted a glitter orgy and had to clean it up? Shit's impossible get rid of). There are tons of lol-worthy videos that've inspired legions of Tumblrs dedicated to making fun of things with similar imagery. Take that strong aesthetic and add lyrics delivered in an abstract, self-created language, and then pile it even higher with a self-made, epistemological philosophy called "now age." There's a lot of room for ridicule here; their idiosyncrasies walk a fine line between radically insightful and completely detached from reality. But trust me when I say that this band should not be overlooked. The key to understanding Prince Rama is faith; they will not enlighten the close-minded.
AZ: Your music has a lot of Eastern elements in it-- is this a conscious choice, or more an intuitive one?
Taraka: I feel like it's more like inner landscapes. To me, music is a very visual thing, and I visualize landscapes and environments for sounds to live in, and I feel that the regions that come out through the music are places that I have internalized in some way. The Eastern music even, it's like "Yes, I can see how that can be seen as like, Eastern music," but for me, it was the music I grew up with.
Nimai: Growing up, our parents loved a lot of super-psychedelic stuff. We listened to a bunch of Hare Krishna music. But in Texas, we were living in such a conservative, Christian town that it wasn't conducive to psychedelic, '60s rock at all. And so my parents-- they used to be hardcore hippies-- would play that kind of stuff in the car for us and we would just think it was normal music. Eventually, we were in junior high and we decided to love Hanson, Backstreet Boys, and whatever was popular at the time.
Taraka: It's weird looking back on it now; it was like these two extremes that I totally embrace now. It's like extreme Eastern/spiritual/psychedelic music and extreme pop on the other end of the spectrum and neither one discounted the other. I was really into both.
Nimai: But even the pop that we were listening to still had a higher message... "MMMBop" is like a way of measuring time. In an "MMMBop," you're gone; in an "MMMBop," you're not there.
Taraka: That's so mystical!! [snickers]
AZ: [Laughs] Pop's always found a way like that. With 2012 around the corner, I’ve noticed how many pop songs revolve around the idea of the last chance, which sort of alludes to an apocalypse approaching. Britney Spears’ “’Til The World Ends,” Usher’s “DJ Got Us Falling In Love Again”…
Taraka: It's always been there… I'm really into apocalypses. I looked up eleven different ends-of-the-world within the past 50 years, and the number-one hit songs that corresponded with each of those-- they're strangely connected. This was almost too good to be true: the number-one hit for this last one, May 21st, 2011 [the date of Harold Camping's predicted Judgement Day], was ''Til The World Ends." And some have these weird survival messages; on Y2K, the number-one was Faith Hill's "Just Breathe." Pop is a dispenser of mass consciousness.
By Dale W. Eisinger
John Zorn is a complicated figure in the history of the American avant-garde. His performances are at times alienating, and on the whole dense. In the '70s, when he moved to New York and began making a name for himself as a saxophonist, composer, and founder of the performance art project Theatre of Musical Optics, he rejected much of the "cool" culture of his time. He flouted conventions of composition, performance, pedagogy, and promotion in order to retain total control over his work, and remains a linchpin of the sort of New York counter culture that is at once exclusionary and influential.
Zorn didn't dislike "scenes," per se, as he ran with very specific types of composers and performers-- Milford Graves, Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson-- in the Downtown Music movement of the '70s. Zorn was also instrumental in the rise of avant concert spaces in the city with his work at venues like Tonic and the original Knitting Factory. His performances, curation, and administrative work helped to sustain some of those first inklings of New York DIY. Currently, he's artistic director at Alphabet City's The Stone, a performance space he founded in 2005. His label, Tzadik, has released records from Merzbow, Mike Patton, Kayo Dot, and hundreds of other out and left-field artists since '95. Despite his underground ethos, his establishment accreditations are too many to list, and he's credited on more than 400 records as producer or performer.
But attempting to summarize or label the career of the avant-garde composer and multi-instrumentalist contradicts the spirit of his art. Zorn's been reluctant to deal with press over the years, saying we've done him no favors and caused him nothing but troubles. He's gone as far as asking journalists not to review his shows. As I told Zorn before this email interview, it was not our intent to paint him in false light, exploit his likeness, or make any assumptions of his work. I wanted to introduce him to a new set of listeners who may be unfamiliar with his unflinching autonomy and radical aesthetic sense. Zorn possesses a beautiful mind, one capable of elucidating his unique musical language for a younger generation of likeminded artists.
In what is intended to illuminate "the most important musical voices of our time," Zorn will appear at Columbia University's Miller Theater on Friday, December 9th as part of the space's Composer Portrait series. In addition to larger ensemble pieces, there will be four world premieres and one New York premiere of some newer compositions by Zorn, each technically demanding and written with a specific performer in mind: cellist Fred Sherry, violinist Jennifer Koh, pianist Steve Gosling, the Talea Ensemble, and conductor Brad Lubman. Afterwards, Zorn will play late-night organ improvisations at St. Paul's Chapel.
[Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin; photo by David Black]
By Emilie Friedlander
One unseasonably warm October morning in Brooklyn, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin opens the front door of a three-story brick walk-up on a busy thoroughfare in Greenpoint. The 29-year-old Boston area transplant is wearing a black Celtics cap and a green Carhartt jacket. He speaks with the sing-song drawl of a proud stoner, and appears to be freshly woken up. I am here to chat with him about his solo album, Replica-- his fifth since 2009, and his first since becoming a co-founder, with Joel Ford, of Software Records, a subsidiary of Brooklyn label Mexican Summer.
In many ways, Replica is his sparsest, warmest-sounding, and most tightly constructed work to date, offsetting his signature, Juno 60 drone cumuli with a focus on the looped sample as a compositional building block. Lopatin's repetition-based arrangements-- masterminded with the help of childhood friend Al Carson, Mexican Summer’s in-house producer-- are more likely to evoke jazz, ‘90s IDM, and J Dilla than the retro-futurist, ‘70s and ‘80s synth ephemera that his fans have come to expect.
Sample-wise, Replica culls primarily from a DVD compilation of American daytime television commercials from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with a particular emphasis on the melodic, rhythmic, and psychic surprises that can arise when you play a single sound bite on repeat. During our conversation, he brings me over to his computer and clicks play on a sound file labeled “Dinner Conversation”: mostly dead air, but with occasional eruptions of smacking lips, clicking tongues, “ooohs,” ahhhs,” “mmms,” and other non-verbal intimations of gustatory delight.
This a commercial for this Nestle coffee-- “almost kind of a fake, high-end coffee, and they were giving the impression of elegance in the commercial,” Dan explains. He has removed every bit of the soundtrack that was designed to be heard-- in other words, the commercial’s intended message-- and isolated traces of what he described as the advertisement’s “subconscious”: not the scripted spectacle which attempts to make us crave Nestle, but its unruly, awkward, and even blushingly libidinous inner life. “It's not meant to be like, 'I'm fucking with advertising, man!'” Dan exclaims, his eyebrows rising as far as the brim of his hat. “I don't feel that at all. It's revealing that we're not in a perfect system though we want to be. We want to believe that we're efficient and perfect, but things are totally out of control and chaotic, like the way we speak and the way we think.”
Most talented artists fall into one of two camps: those with interesting ideas, and those with exemplary technical skills. Although the idea people sometimes make the more compelling work, the virtuosic are consistent points of fascination. Their work can't really be accessed by the human intellect, and that is both terrifying and beautiful. When listening to Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) have his way with the electric bass, it is natural to place him into the technique category. But the retro-futurist brew of African American popular musics on his debut LP, the Flying Lotus-produced The Golden Age of the Apocalypse-- ranging from the buttery, '70s soul of Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers to the funkified, often psychedelic jazz fusion sounds of The Weather Report-- proves that he can't be overlooked as an idea man.
I caught up with the soft-spoken Cat at his apartment on Crenshaw boulevard in Los Angeles. The Hollywood sign was visible through an obligatory layer of smog, and the scene around the box-like building included signs in Korean and English, black bikers buzzing by on choppers, and an orange building housing a martial arts school. A voice from within the building's front gate called my name. This was none other than Bruner, looming in the stairwell with a stick of incense tucked behind his ear and a tall, green, felt hat that made him look like he had just stepped out of the cover photo for Dylan's The Basement Tapes. His living room contained barely any furniture, with the majority of his belongings-- mainly video games, anime, and musical artifacts-- pushed neatly against the walls. An older gray cat, Mishka, was being followed around by a brown-and-white kitten named Tron. Bruner unfolded a card table and and we sat down to talk, beginning with a discussion of Thundercat’s upcoming tour to one of his favorite places in the world: Japan.
[Photo by Estelle Hanania]
By Max Burke
Rhys Chatham's work as a composer and musician has spanned three decades and multiple continents. In New York, in the late '70s, he turned his classical minimalist training toward punk rock, creating an early incarnation of noise music with his seminal 1977 composition, "Guitar Trio." From there, he has charted a restless artistic course, taking in jazz, electronic, and avant-garde rock. His most audacious work is 2007's A "Crimson Grail," which he scored for orchestras of hundreds of guitars, and has performed both in New York and his adopted home of Paris. Throughout his career, he has maintained a passionate interest in the most cutting-edge practitioners, leading to globe-trotting collaborations and the recruitment of younger players into his extended artistic family. I spoke with Rhys over coffee on a picture perfect Brooklyn Fall day just before his headlining matinee performance at Neon Marshmallow Festival.
AZ: You wrote a number of essays in the early '90s about your experiences in the New York downtown art rock and minimalist scene. How have audiences for your music changed since that time?
Rhys: When I wrote those essays in the '90s I was still coming from the place of a conservatory-trained composer working in a rock context. Back in the '70s and '90s, the context of where you played was what defined you. So I was very careful to insist that the music that I did was not not "rock," but I didn't call myself a rock composer because I had too much respect for the form, and that wasn't where I was coming from with a piece like "Guitar Trio." Since the '70s and '80s I've kind of loosened up. At this point in my life, I've played more in rock and jazz clubs than I have in concert halls. Things have changed since the '80s: in the '90s we had this revolution of electronica, in Europe in particular. It was instrumental music with no English-language rap on top of it, just purely music. It was very powerful, I was really swept away by that and I started playing trumpet over electronic beats and released an album with Ninja Tune [Neon, with Martin Wheeler, 1997]. Then I got back into the guitar stuff.
Bronx, NY folk-rock unit Pigeons create dark, kaleidoscopic soundscapes, populated by loose pop structures and abstract dissonance, shades of wintry stillness, and a hauntological layer of dust. Recently, they expanded their line-up to include acoustic noodlers from the No-Neck Blues Band and Black Twig Pickers, and got to work on their third full-length. They Sweetheartstammers, out next week on Soft Abuse, is packed with hypnotic psychedelia, Francophilia, cobweb-laden sonic spaces, and shadowy retrofuturism, balancing moods of wonder and foreboding with an artisan's acumen. The founding power duo of partners Clark Griffin and Wednesday Knudsen took some time via email to talk about the band's origins, their progression from improv to concise songwriting, trash art, and finding unusual muses in the creaking freeform explorations of Jean-Claude Eloy and the mighty Margarita enthusiast Jimmy Buffett.
AZ: I'd love to hear the definitive "how Pigeons came to be" story.
Clark: We lived in Seattle and we played with the Sea Donkeys-- a loose association of freaks and assholes, but a good band. We had many things thrown at us during our performances. It was a golden gamelan era, though. We learned a lot about improvisation. Then we moved to New York and kept busy musically, putting out some cassettes and a couple of lathes under the name Pigeons. There have been fewer projectiles for Pigeons, but that might be because attendance at our shows is usually minimal.
[Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography]
By Max Burke
Colin Stetson is an American born, Montreal-based multi-instrumentalist who has worked with Tom Waits, Anthony Braxton, and Arcade Fire, among many others, and currently tours with Bon Iver. Stetson's solo work hinges on his virtuosic command of the saxophone, with a particular emphasis on the intimidating and cumbersome bass sax. Live, the tremendous physical commitment required to play and his baffling circular breathing technique make his ambitious compositions doubly hypnotic. It is difficult to describe the otherworldly strains Stetson conjures from his instrument, but sometimes it sounds as though an entire orchestra has taken up residence in his horn. In the studio, these are documented on the first two volumes of his New History Warfare record series and the just-released Those Who Didn't Run 10". The third and final installment of the New History Warfare series is due next year on Constellation Records. I caught up with Stetson just before a rapturously received set at Asbury Park's Paramount Theater on the first day of All Tomorrow's Parties' inaugural I'll Be Your Mirror festival, curated by Portishead.
[Left to right: Ana da Silva & Gina Birch of The Raincoats; photo by Shirley O'Loughlin]
It's a damp Thursday afternoon in Brooklyn when I meet Ana da Silva and Gina Birch at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg, where they have been practicing with their sometimes-drummer, Vice Cooler, for two days. Founding members of the British post-punk band The Raincoats, Ana and Gina, both Londoners, are prepping for a short string of tour dates in support of Odyshape-- their recently remastered 1981 sophomore album, which they reissued on their own We ThRee imprint earlier this month. Meeting your musical heroes is hard. But with their humility and easy laughter, the Raincoats made it easy.
"If there were one hundred female bands doing something interesting, maybe we wouldn't be here," Ana half-jokes, sitting on stage at the empty Knitting Factory. Her Portuguese accent recalls the sing-shout verses that date back to their earliest singles, like "Fairytale In The Supermarket." There is a refreshing, clear-headed quality to The Raincoats' ideas about defiance, and their live performance remains full of hopeful energy.
After meeting at art school in London in 1976, Gina and Ana (who hails from Portugal, and is eight years Birch's senior) formed The Raincoats and became one of the first bands to sign to Rough Trade Records. "I didn't see the music business as something I related to," Ana tells me, "but Rough Trade was very much-- you do what you want."
The band's four records eschewed technical proficiency for strange structures and an overarching feminist ethos. As self-described "art musicians," they used portable cassette players and small, rudimentary studios to record their unconventional protest songs. But while their rock-oriented 1979 debut, The Raincoats, is now considered a definitive post-punk record, the serenely peculiar Odyshape is noteworthy for its skeletal, avant-gardist approach. It is particularly fitting that The Raincoats, dubbed "The Godmothers of Grunge" by Kurt Cobain, should land on American turf in 2011, amid the Kurtmania of Nevermind’s twentieth birthday and the recent historicizing of Riot Grrrl's inaugural Summer. The Raincoats exerted significant influence over both musical moments.
We cannot blame Ana and Gina for being unfamiliar with Altered Zones-- Ana still thinks of recording on computers as a "futuristic" idea. But when I briefly explain that the site covers "weird DIY music," Birch brightens: "That sounds perfect for us!" Below, we discuss their current projects, the story of Odyshape, and a recent performance the Raincoats call "the pinnacle" of their career.
[Photo by Bryan Derballa]
From the opening moments, it is clear that Forever, the debut LP of Austin, TX's Sleep ∞ Over, is an album that dwells in intimate places. Full of warm, lightly crackling synth tones and lush ambient echoes, Sleep ∞ Over's music has us gazing at our shoes and staring at the stars in equal measure. Dreamy, ambient sections are punctuated by drum machine-driven power ballads like "Casual Diamond" and "Romantic Streams." Forever was recorded in the wake of Sarah Brown and Christa Palazzolo's departure from the band to form Boy Friend, making Sleep ∞ Over largely the solo project of Stefanie Franciotti, whose past credits include singing lead in the freak-folk outfit Silver Pines (with members of Pure X). I had the chance to chat with Franciotti recently on a number of topics including her recording process, other dimensions, and overcoming hardships in order to make her first album a reality.
AZ: Did the line-up change (from a trio to a solo project) have a big impact on how you record?
Stefanie: I mean, yeah. As far as the recording was concerned, when we were writing the songs to get it ready, it just ended up that I was doing most of the writing by myself, so I pretty much continued on with the endeavor. I either played parts by myself, or I would get my roommate Christine, who sang back-up on some of the tracks and played some guitar and stuff. I basically had my roommates fill in the gaps when I needed it.
By Ian Pearson
In 2009, Amen Dunes' debut LP, DIA, presented itself as a mystery: a red cardboard sleeve with strange, xerox-printed art, the story of a man taking refuge with his guitar in a Catskill Mountain cabin, and twelve dissonant jams from the leafy crawl space, stirring and emotive. In the months to follow, this terribly romantic story and the ambling folk freak-outs it left behind caught the attention of listeners Internet-wide. What I first encountered as some obscure record bin treasure became a prized gem in an ever-growing, modern fuzz-psych canon. Damon McMahon, the man behind the moniker, has since released a few follow-ups, including this year's finest downer, Through Donkey Jaw on Sacred Bones, and Rat on a Grecian Urn, a cassette of unstructured compositions on Fixed Identity. I phoned Damon a few weeks ago, just after the threat and ultimate disappointment of hurricane-turned-tropical-storm Irene, to talk about the origins of Amen Dunes and where he's headed now.
AZ: Amen Dunes is not your first project. How did this one come about?
Damon McMahon: It came about from some recordings I was doing in 2006. I bought a tape machine and miscellaneous music gear and I had a plan to just go away for a month and record some stuff. I ended up with a bunch of songs that I didn't intend on releasing, but then sent them to this label in Chicago called Locust Music, and they said they wanted to put it out. That's when I put a name to the project. I had no intention of playing shows at all at the point. I didn't even play any until 2009, when the album came out. So it was just the name for the recordings I did in 2006.
AZ: Did you have any kind of musical training?
Damon: It was pretty minimal. When I was 15, I took one year of guitar lessons, where they'll try to teach you The Allman Brothers. That was it. I learned the chords, but to this day I have no idea what key anything is in, or which scales. All I know is major/minor chords, seventh chords, and then everything else I kind of... I like it that way. I wouldn't want to know too much. But the thing is, ever since I was 13 or 14, I've just been a fanatic listener, and I think that's been my music training. I've internalized patterns or habits of how people structure songs.
[Sun Araw's Cameron Stallones at Woodsist Festival Big Sur 2011; photo by Robert Khoury]
Sun Araw, the "sacred retreat" of Cameron Stallones, rides fleeting moments of spiritual clarity out to the end of the astral plane on his recently Zoned In 2xLP, Ancient Romans. Guns blazing, the Los Angeles artist returns with his most sonically acrobatic and, depending on your taste, accessible material yet. It's the type of work that has the potential to broadcast Sun Araw's Technicolor pastiche of cosmic riddim, sacramental chants, scorched dub, and aquatic ambience far outside the niche catacombs where these sorts of abstract meditations like to dwell.
Ancient Romans is not just a particularly adventurous effort-- it's rife with misdirection. The 80-minute offering keeps the ingredients for a concept album on retainer, but Stallones intimates both directly and cryptically that it's really more of an introspective affair. On a casual listen, it might sound like DMT-riddled, improvisational treatment of psychedelic Laurel Canyon lore. In actuality, Stallones reveals an unusual, tremendously detailed-oriented approach to sound sculpting. To wit, any assumptions about Ancient Romans are probably patently false, or at least inaccurate. Cameron took some time away from his myriad projects to get mystical with me over email about his new label, Sonic Boom, compositional repetition, and the "porch of the mind."
[From left to right: Omar Ahsanuddin, Nash Whalen, Dusty Jermier, and Ripley Johnson of Wooden Shjips; photo by Ripley Johnson]
By Andy French
Since their inception in 2006, Wooden Shjips have focused psychedelic experimentation into tightly wound bundles of rhythmic furry. Their early days were marked by a strident DIY attitude, from recording their own albums to releasing singles compilations on their own label, Sick Thirst. I recently phoned guitarist Ripley Johnson, bass player Dusty Jermier, drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, and organ player Nash Whalen to talk about collaborating with Sonic Boom and producer Phil Manley on their forthcoming LP on Thrill Jockey, life as a "San Francisco band," and the mythology of the American West.
AZ: Early on, I heard a story that the "j" in your name is an homage to Swedish psych.
Ripley: Yeah, that's true. It really comes from Pärson Sound and Träd Gräs och Stenar. When I discovered those records, I think Subliminal Sounds released those on CD, and I got really into those. The first pressings were really small, and so that was the first time they were really available. I was talking with a friend who was half-Swedish, and we were joking about the spelling, so that's how it came about. It was one of those things that happened really off the cuff, and you end up explaining it for the rest of your life [Laughs]. I still like the fact that we have it but we're not like Swede-o-philes or anything like that.
By Max Burke
Since meeting as students at San Francisco State in the mid-2000s, Barn Owl's Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras have carved out a unique swath of the modern American psychedelic underground for themselves. Extensive touring in Europe and America and a rigorous release schedule have established them as seasoned purveyors of an idiosyncratic brand of dark, guitar-based drone. The group's latest is Lost in the Glare, their second full-length for Thrill Jockey-- following their Shadowland EP earlier this year, 2010's career-high Ancestral Star LP, and a slew of solo and side project releases. The new record finds the core duo of Caminiti and Porras augmented by percussionist Jacob Felix Heule on select tracks, further expanding the bounds of their moody and minutely detailed sound universe.
AZ: How did you begin your collaboration as Barn Owl?
Jon: We met in class at college. I saw Evan from across the room and saw another bearded long haired fellow and figured we might get along. At the time we were both looking to play music with someone and we were into solo guitar fingerpicking [in the vein of] Sandy Bull and John Fahey. We also were both interested in taking that Americana tradition and expanding it, using other experimental elements-- drone elements-- and fusing in a whole minimal-classical angle.
Evan: Around the time we met, stuff like American Primitive Guitar finger style with open tunings, and minimalists like Terry Riley, La Monte Young... we were discovering these things and it was a big epiphany at the time, and it inspired us to work toward fusing these elements.
[Right to left: Michael Stasiak, Molly Hamilton, and Robert Earl Thomas of Widowspeak. Photo by Sebastian Slayter]
Last July, drummer Michael Stasiak brought guitarist Robert Earl Thomas to Molly Hamilton's Brooklyn apartment for their first practice as Widowspeak. The result was a mildly psychedelic and country western take on the '50s rock and roll ballad, carried by Molly's slow, sometimes pained, always beautiful voice. Their new self-titled album on Captured Tracks, recorded with Woods drummer Jarvis Taveniere at Rear House, is full of dark melodies and devoid of lo-fi or synthesized effects. It's nothing new, but it feels fresh in a scene that bounces from destroyed and warped to ambient without even a pause in between.
Even in one year, an evolution is apparent. In September 2010, they released an EP on Michael's tape label, Wack Slacks Tapes, then two seven-inch singles at the beginning of this year. The difference between the tape's "Yellow Light" and the song that it became on the album, "Half Awake," is striking. The former is textbook Brooklyn bedroom: static-covered vocals, echoing drums, and thin guitar riffs. The latter is fleshed-out rather than washed-out, with a solid rhythm section of layered guitar and organ that allows Rob to hook his way through the song like a surfer-gone-country.
I had a couple drinks last week with Molly and Rob to talk about the evolution of their sound and music and movies that have influenced them.
AZ: What kind of set-up do you guys use for recording?
Molly: We recorded the tape in tracks but on a MacBook. It was so easy and gave the tape the right sound and mood-- the right amount of garage buzz. And all those songs were rougher and darker. For the LP, we wanted to turn up the fidelity. I love '90s pop, and not in an ironic way. People in our generation grew up on it. It’s clear-- crystal clear. There is no reverb. It is awesome. People are singing non-ironically.