in which Mats Gustafsson talks to Jesse Poe exclusively for Terrascope Online
Every time I listen to the music of Tanakh I find myself painting mental images of favourite places already visited but more importantly also imaginary vistas of the most stunning nature. At times I see myself riding quiet country roads through the Appalachians but I am just as likely to be seen under a streetlight in a fog-clad, deserted town square at night. Music that has this visual effect on me is the kind that unquestionably hits the deepest and when it comes to sonic mastermind Jesse Poe it’s no secret that I fell under his spell already when Alien8 released his debut album Villa Claustrophobia in 2002. The way the sounds move back and forth from the abstract and droning to the compositional and folky makes me feel like I'm in the semi-detached state of awareness where your body falls asleep but your mind remains awake.
2003’s Dieu Deuil was a more structured and traditional listen in a ‘70s-era folk psychedelia kind of way so when Tanakh returned for their third album on the Canadian Alien8 imprint I was pretty sure to get another dose of their slightly more structured repertoire, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Tanakh once again proved capable of illustrating new locations, this time of the more haunting variety through all sorts of creaking noises and slow-changing clusters of hazy drone abstraction.
No matter chosen artistic direction Tanakh always seems to come out in one piece, and the results continue to fascinate to this day. As the band prepares to release the follow-up to their third album, and celebrates the fact that they’re going to play at the upcoming Terrastock fest in Providence, I got in touch with Poe via email for the extensive discussion that follows.
Tell us a bit about your personal background. Where did you grow up? Could you tell us a bit about your family?
Well, I was born in Louisville, KY, where my dad was running this independent record chain, Karma Records, after a year or so we moved back to Indiana where my parent’s families where living. I left Indiana as soon as I was legally able to and moved to Blacksburg, Virginia at 17. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason for picking VA, other than I was tired of flat middle-America and I wanted to be where there were mountains and geography that was a bit more diverse than the hours of cornfields in every direction, I had grown up around. Unfortunately there wasn’t a Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Blue Sanct, Family Vineyard, scene in Indiana until long after I had left home.
As far as my family, they are a strange bag. I guess everyone has a strange uncle or a crazy aunt, or a famous brother, but my family seems to be full of all the above and more; writers, musicians, songwriters, painters, preachers, full-time drivers for country musicians, inventors, etc. and then the ones who aren’t seem to be just plain crazy in your typical garden varietal sort of way. I had this uncle who made an actual flying helicopter from used parts and pieces from catalogues and junkyards, and then this other uncle who made as much money fixing shoes as most doctors did in our town, and yet every year he would steal aluminum siding from building sites to fix the rust spots on his Gremlin by repanelling it with the pilfered aluminum siding. I guess really idiosyncratic is more appropriate than crazy, but there is a handful of bona fide crazies as well, most of them I didn’t know just, heard about. I love my family, they are all just really unique, I remember the first time I met my cousin Danny the space cowboy, who lived(s) in southern Texas in a small Silverstream with lawn furniture bolted to the roof, that was parked in the front yard of my great-aunt Billie’s house, his mother, who writes historical fiction, under the name Will Alan Jameson. Anyway Danny was a cool interesting guy to my adolescent eyes, he made his money doing album covers for psychedelic bands, which I thought was pretty cool, but then (this was the 80s) he was having trouble finding bands that still wanted psyche-art. The thing I remember the most about him, though, was that the inside of his Silverstream was floor to ceiling audio-tapes all hand labelled and I was in awe, I grew up in a house with a lot of records, but I think it was that this took up his entire living space. He began to show me around his collection; Danny had amassed a gigantic collection of full-length records recorded to tape from the radio in accurate album order. He was a primitive downloader, calling up radio stations requesting a particular song, cueing his tape and then waiting for it to come on so he could capture it. I am still amazed when I think about it, but at the same time it just seems like most of the folks in my family.
What are your earliest musical memories, Jesse?
(Laughing) In-utero. My parents although much more normal than my extended family were crazy about music, they were the kind of expecting parents who would but headphones on my mom’s bulging stomach. My father was running Karma Records which was the best independent record store(s) in the Midwest for a really long time, and then my mom worked down the street at Coconuts, a corporate record store chain. We never really watched TV, except two or three programs, which we would watch and then turn off and play music. My dad used to put on concerts in conjunction with his store, booking bands like, Cheap Trick, Black Sabbath and so on. The first concert I attended (on this side of the womb) was Roy Buchanan, I was six months old, and then shortly after that Robin Trower, and so on. I can’t remember a time in my life when music wasn’t an essential, integral part of it. I remember thinking Sgt. Pepper, Yellow Submarine, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and all the Savoy Brown records where kids records cause they had cartoony covers, it wasn’t until last summer when I did a kids camp in Chianti that I sat down and learned real kids songs like “I’m a little teapot” and the like. In fact that is where “girland” a b-side from our new record came from, I had borrowed a stack of kids records to learn songs for this camp, and one of the records leant to me was “Free to Be You and Me”, which must have been great, if you were a kid at the time or a hippie-going-straight-kind-of-parent, but I kept getting “girland” stuck in my head and it just sounded so strange when I was singing it that I got together with Darius Jones, who plays sax in Tanakh, and proposed rearranging it for our new record. It was the first time I really let up on the reigns in Tanakh and let someone else do the greater part of the work, really he did almost everything, and I think he did a fantastic job! He really caught the strangeness of it that I was feeling and took it a step further. I remember being 5 years old and having a collectors pride due to my 8track collection, which I listened to obsessively, Kiss-destroyer, Simon and Garfunkel-Bookends, David Bowie-Changes One, Jim Croce and some others I don’t recall right now. Between my mom’s record collection and my dad’s our house was just a library of records, which was really fortunate for me and at the same time kind of unfortunate, because it wasn’t until I left home for college that I started buying my own records. So in high school while everyone else was listening to the Violent Femmes and Metallica, I was listening to Miles Davis, Gram Parsons, Tim Buckley, Quicksilver Messenger Service and whatever else my dad would pull out. I mean I listened to other stuff too, like for example I would go to the library and check out records of civil war songs, old-timey records and different international records but I never bought records of my own till I left home.
Apart from the specific persons and events mentioned above, how would you say that having a “strange” family has had an impact on you as a musician?
Well I guess having a
strange or unconventional family has given me the mind set that I could do
or be whatever I wanted to, not in a stupid grandiose way like hmm...I think
I'll be president, but that you just do the things you want to do or else
you don't. I remember this feeling be fostered the most by my father, which
was a godsend since my step-father often told me I couldn't do anything,
anyway I remember I wanted to be an artist, and my step-father saying you
couldn't make any money being an artist unless you were really good so
forget about it, so my natural father paid me a dollar for every picture I
drew. I remember one day driving in the car with my natural father, Kent,
and listening to the radio, which is what we did all the time, I bet you
mileage-wise I could have circled the globe twice listening to old radio
stations with my dad at the wheel, I'd sing along and he'd quiz me on all
the songs that came on, till this day, it is the one thing I miss the most
about living in America, not having a car, and endless country roads with a
blaring stereo. Anyway we were riding around and "Misty Mountain Hop" (Led
Zeppelin IV) came on and at the time I worshipped them, still sort of do
I guess, so I was so psyched to hear them on the AM and I told my dad, you
know this song is so great but they really ruin it with that droney mantra
verse stuff (now a very favorite style of mine funny how you grow to love
what you first hate), my dad so matter of factly said, well change it,
rerecord it, the way you think it should sound. And now I do it, I hear a
sound and I change it to please my ears, wouldn't it be great if there was
some kid riding around listening to one of my records, saying this is great
but that part sucks, I am going to grow up and do it right. That would be
Have you always been interested in the more abstract side of the sound spectrum?
No not really, unless you consider Tribute to Jack Johnson or African Brass Sessions abstract for a teenager in the late 80s early 90’s, but it just seemed normal to me. It wasn’t until my second year of college that I met this writer, Vic Moose, who became a mentor/father/friend to me, that I even heard music concrete or abstract musics. Vic introduced me (and still does) to all kinds of music that I had never been exposed to before, from Gavin Bryars to Bang on a Can to John Cage. He also turned me onto lots of other stuff, like Lauri Anderson and so on. My parents had really given me a treasure trove of rock, country, blues and jazz, but my friendship with Vic really started to fill in the other holes. My parents split up when I was a kid and my mother remarried to a Mexican man so I heard a lot of Spanish music and particularly conjutos music when we visited his family’s house which was about one weekend a month, I think this paved the way for my interest in international music, but it wasn’t until college that I started to get really interested in it. I was dating this Indian girl, Radhika, in college and saw all kinds of classical Indian concerts and then a few years later started studying Indian classical music myself, focusing on vocals and sitar, and tabla too, but I sucked at tabla, but you have to learn the taals to be able to understand the other stuff. At the same time I met Vic I was working at a bakery/coffee shop/vegetarian restaurant with Jack Rose, I quit the bakery and got a job at the corner record shop. I guess through connection with Pelt and the shows that they played in town, this record shop, The Record Exchange, was a haven of Terrascope fans and it was through that shop, that I began to find out about a whole new world of music. We could open any record we wanted to just as long as we could sell it afterwards and we did, we listened to every record we could, and would sell things like the harmony of the spheres box sets to girls who were looking for Dave Mathews. It was fantastic! I became even more obsessed with music than ever before, and now I had found a music that was equal in quality to that which I had listened to as a kid, but it was my own, I think that it was really the most important part of my musical development, it wasn’t until then that I wanted to make my own music. Sure I had played guitar as a kid learning Led Zeppelin riffs and stuff, and most people in my family could play something or other, in fact my great aunts and uncles had a weekly live radio program where they played bluegrass and country music, but once I started reading the Terrascope and listening to all the records they recommended I wanted to make my own music, and somehow Terrascope made me feel like I actually could do just that.
I guess this musical revelation of sorts probably was even more powerful for someone like yourself who was brought up in a family crazy about music, right?
Yeah, I thought that I had heard everything by the time I was sixteen, I mean I was reading Lester Bangs the other day talking about Coltrane's African Brass Sessions and I was right there with him, I remember making a tape of that record when I was twelve. So yeah, having heard so much great music growing up, there was a hunger for something new, and well current mainstream music wasn't doing it for me, so to finally find music that I hadn't heard that was good was amazing for me! I went from feeling like I had heard it all to feeling like I didn't know a thing, and that is a wonderful feeling, which I am still feeling, I have heard so many records in my life and memorized the liner notes, and been quizzed by my dad about who played what and then what band did they go on to be in later, etc. and now I just stand in awe of how little I know. And today with the accessibility of quality home recording and the CD-R culture, the world of recorded music is just what it should be, a vast unconquerable sea that forever calls you to explore it, an exotic jungle filled with creatures that you could never imagine and indigenous peoples to teach you things that you never knew. I mean I remember a few years ago, crashing/playing at Godspeed's Hotel 2 Tango, and hearing Slap Happy Humphrey for the first time and just being absolutely floored and in tears for hearing someone else express themselves musically in the same way that I see the world, so beautiful and endearing and so absolutely fucked and then not being able to tell which is which. It is wonderful to know/believe that with every new record recorded or re-released that this experience may present itself again, and hopefully again and again.
If I am correctly informed Tanakh started as an improv duo comprised by yourself and Phil Murphey.
You are right. Playing with Phil was/is one of the greatest joys of my life. He’s fantastic!
Tell us a bit about the start and what lead to the recording of your phenomenal debut album Villa Claustrophobia?
Wow that is a tall
order, I could do a whole piece just on that, but ok the short version is
this: Phil who is in my opinion the best musician in the world and one of
the coolest sweetest guys I have ever met, he is just a gem! So we were
friends, really close, we did everything together, we worked together in a
coffee shop, and we interned together at a recording studio (Sound of Music)
and we played music together, and listened to records together non-stop.
Anyway we were learning to engineer under John Morand one of the best
engineers ever, with a brain the size of Minnesota. So we were allowed to
work after hours at the studio trying out what we had learned that day, so a
couple times a week we would grab a bunch of instruments stick them in the
room and he would play something and I would record him so that I could
practice recording, and then we would switch and I would play something
while he practiced recording me, and visa-versa. Joan Osborn had just
recorded at S.o.M. and had left all these ethnic instruments there since she
had recently done a study with the late great Nasrat Ali Khan and had a
major label budget; she had all this cool stuff. We didn't know how to play
any of them but we would just have a go till we got sounds we liked and then
go from there. Our rule was to make music on things we couldn't play and
then add our own instruments later, guitar and banjo and stuff like that. We
did this for a couple of weeks and were ending up with these really cool
songs/sound pieces. After we had amassed a few recordings we realized that
not only had we created a sort of continuing esthetic but that it was pretty
cool and we were excited about it. I remember we were eating falafel one
night at like 2 am on the floor of the control room, listening to the stuff
we had done the last few weeks, and we were talking about the Tanakh, we
were crazy about anything that wasn't familiar to us, and we both just sort
of realized that the songs were really good and we should do something about
it. That night we decided to start playing live and that maybe we should
include some other people to accomplish the same sort of sound that we were
stacking up on our own in the studio. That night we decided to call the
project Tanakh, because it seemed so mysterious and foreign and cool to us
at the time, plus we just really liked the way it sounded and how it looked
on paper, so angular. We played one show, just Phil and I, thinking Phil
could loop some tabla while I created a guitar sound wash and then he could
join in on something else and we would build live just like in the studio,
the only problem was that we didn't have the right sort of gear to do this,
and our first show consisted of Phil wresting with this old loop machine and
never getting it to work and me doing a thirty minute guitar wash/repetitive
mantra-like solo, god I was so nervous and excited and thought we had just
absolutely bombed, but it was a hit, everybody dug it and I remember having
a tape of the show and thinking this is really awesome, but it could be a
hell of a lot better, if there was some more folks.
The story behind the creation of Villa Claustrophobia is just amazing. In what way do you think this sudden and unfortunate change of plans effected the final results?
Well for the better and for the worse. For example, Gently Johnny and The Devils’ Interval were the only songs on Villa Claustrophobia that had a connective history with Tanakh’s first incarnations, I think both are successful but it is hard for me to listen to them sometimes because of my memory of how they were. Pat Best used to play this blisteringly psychedelic 12-string guitar solo on Gently Johnny that was reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “The song Remains the Same”, and every time I hear the recording of “Gently Johnny” on V.C. I can hear how it aches for his guitar. The Devil’s Interval was based on an interval that the church banned for like 400 years because they thought it belonged to the Devil which is hard for me to imagine and also exciting to think that some sounds are so strong they compromise faith, or that perhaps all sounds could be assigned to a person, or god. It is like buying a star; that one there on the right, the bright little star below the Milky Way, that is my star. So the whole song is built on that interval and I intended it to be as worshipful as possible, to reclaim it in a way or in a way to but the Devil back into God, and return them to their proper Eastern Balance. So anyway that song originally was a song for four acoustic guitars, me, Pat, Phil and Jeff. Each one of us treating the instrument in a different way, not counter point so much as counter playing, it sounded great. However, with only me at the wheel it came out as only my vision, I could never reproduce the beauty of the improv that previously existed between the four of us, by myself, so I had to approach it from a different angle, my angle. So in the case of both songs, they came out much more lush and orchestrated than had we done them as a quartet as originally planned. So whether the songs suffered from my own myopia or they succeed because of it, I guess I will never know. But one thing I can say is that there is a loneliness in the music that exists that would not have been there if I had done it as originally planned. I loved and admired those guys, and still do and not making the record with them left a void in me that is ineffable. I intentionally and unintentionally left a space for them on the record, for example on “Gently Johnny” there is a space for Pat’s solo, and although I could have done it or gotten a better guitar player than me to play a solo in that space, I just couldn’t, it is Pat’s space and always will be, and now when we play “Gently Johnny” live I play a guitar solo there, not Pat’s solo, that I could never do even if I was that adept on the guitar, no, infact it is a very destroyed electric guitar solo that is not so much about the song as it is about how much I miss Pat and wish he was still in my life to the same extent he was back then. And in my stupid mind I imagine Pat sitting around on his day off listening to the song and picking up his own guitar and playing in the space I left for him, his space.
You mention that you knew how to make the infrastructure and what you dreamed the record would sound like. Do you think that the final results come close to the sound you had in mind?
Yes and no. It really gets to the core of the sound that I had in my mind, but like all of our records we have done them in just a few days working round the clock, because of lack of money, so there is so many little things I would have loved to add, and little bumps and scabs I would have liked to lick, cover over and smooth out, but there just wasn’t enough money to afford the time to do so.
When reviewing the album I think I said something along these lines: "This is music for riding quiet country roads through the Appalachians that are dusted with brilliantly colored fallen leaves in all shades of red, yellow and orange." Would you consider the landscape to be a major influence on what you do? Is there such a thing as a main theme that influences your music?
(laughing) Well I just wish I wrote beautiful things like that! I have always thought that both you and George Parsons (Dream Magazine) have that Elliot kind of gift of just showing a picture and it explains everything, me I always have to touch the feelings somehow, its such a cool way of writing that you guys have. Reading your reviews is like hearing the records by seeing them instead of being told about them.
Anyway, yeah. Landscape really effects me. The Midwest makes me feel free and yet really depressed, the south wets my mind with mystery and irony, New York pumps me up with so much energy and scares the shit out of me like it would swallow me whole if I tried to live there, etc. For example our new record, Ardent Fevers, is much poppier and light and groovey which in part is due to my friendship with Umberto Trivella and partly due to the beautiful boyant brightness of Florence, but yet both the record and Florence are still dark and mysterious, it is a city with a long history of torture and it’s medieval streets wind through darkness as much as through light.
However, I don’t think that I try to capture landscape in my music or that is a theme per se just something that effects me, and of course that affects my writing some too. I think space effects me more than landscape, I have almost always lived in strange places, where the ceilings were 30 feet high or so low you’d hit your head on them after a beer or two. I could just never be happy in a modern suburban kind-of-house. Well maybe I could be happy but not very creative, I need my space, and I need it to be particular. As far as a “theme”, I don’t know, if you had asked me that years ago I would have said that I wanted everything to sound like the first day of November, but I think even that theme has faded away somewhat. I guess my main thing is that I just want to make beautiful things, I want them to be real and honest, but I want them to be a beauty that I have in my head that is sometimes unobtainable except in a certain angle or certain light. A certain look of a person on the street, or the knowing nod of a friend, the hand of some who loves you resting on your shoulder when you fail. These sort of beautiful things that don’t ever get put on post cards, that is the sort of thing that wells in me when I sit down with a guitar.
I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised when you first told me that the amazing Alien8 imprint was going to put out the record. How did you first get in touch with those guys?
I don’t know exactly. The way I understand it is that, I sent them a copy of V.C. and they got it around the same time I had just met Godspeed, and somehow the record came up in conversation and both parties liked it and the next thing I knew they called me. I was surprised too, but very happy and still am, I think they do great stuff and Gary and Sean are really cool guys to work with and just know, I wish Montreal wasn’t so cold, because I would love to live there if not just to hang out with them, then for all the fantastic record stores, one thing Florence is severely lacking unfortunately.
You've always had an interesting and capable cast of collaborators along the way. Could you tell us about some of the folks you've worked with on your records and how you got together?
Well most recently for our new record we teamed up with Isobel Campbell and Alex Neilson, who I had just met through Alisdar Roberts. They came over from Glasgow to play with us and they were just fantastic all around stellar musicians and just great people to be with. I wish they lived here it would be great to be playing with them, and just having them as neighbors. Fantastic people, really! For the self-titled record which was released 3rd but actually recorded first, there was Pat Best who had been playing in Tanakh for a while. I met Pat while living in Blacksburg and he was also good friends with Jeff and Phil and Pat was/is interested in middle eastern music and other stuff that we all were, so that just made sense. Also on that record was Tom Brickman from Rattle Mouth and Hotel X, he was a good friend of Jeff’s and I think both Jeff and Phil played in Hotel X at one time or another, and Pat too, now that I think about it. Via Noun from Drunk and Manishevits and his own solo work of recent. Via was a friend of all of ours and we had tried to get a band going with him and I and Phil and Jeff and some other guys, like Alan Weatherhead from Sparklehorse and other bands, we were trying to do an all acoustic sleepy country band of diverse covers everything from Prince to the Pretenders, but all in a sleepy beautiful country way, that was in 1998 or there abouts, but it never quite flew, we were all too busy with other bands and well Phil and I were kind of side-tracked anyway birthing Tanakh. On Dieu Deuil, we were supposed to have Marc Ribot play on it, who I had met that year in Italy, but I really felt like it was better to just do it as a band since we had started playing as a band, you know I didn’t want to practice as a band and then record in a much different way, so on that record it was just us and then, Jim White and his bassist-multi-instrumentalist and just all around great guy Bishop, guested on it. I had just flown down to Florida to produce a song for Jim and had a great time working with him and Bishop, so it just seemed right to have them join in, and I really like what they added, they were very reserved and humble in their additions, but when they “spoke up” it was really heart-felt and beautiful. On Villa Claustrophobia, god where do I begin? It just happened that I was booking shows in Richmond, and recording bands, and doing reviews, and playing shows with other bands, and you know you click with some folks and others no. So those folk I had met around then, were nice enough to join in and help out, and I was/am very grateful to each and everyone of them and even the folk who were slotted to be on the record but couldn’t for one reason or another, mainly because I was limited time wise due to money.
If you ask me I’d say that Dieu Deuil speaks in a more intimate tone than its predecessor. It seems like you decided to turn inward rather than illustrating the landscape around you. Do you agree? What would you say is the unifying link between the debut album and Dieu Deuil? Any obvious differences that you would like to point out?
I would say that you are probably right in saying that, it is hard for me to say objectively. I know that one major difference is that the songs on Dieu Deuil were songs that I wrote and played with a band before recording them at the studio, so to me they feel more intimate, because there is a more human connection for me. I love to play music alone, but usually never leave my house to play alone because to me the reason to play out is play with others, and this conversation/expression of music with others is the thing I love the most about music (probably much to the dislike of the others in Tanakh, cause every show we play I am always inviting someone to join us on stage and just have a go at it with us, to me that’s what it’s all about). So actually being able to play the songs with others before recording them made them a bit more intimate for me, more fleshy. I think the major differences between the records from a more pragmatic stance is that the budget for Dieu Deuil was a lot less than Villa Claustrophobia coupled with the fact there were no problems encountered in recording the V.C. like there were with recording D.D. We had a hard drive failure with D.D. and in short almost had to re-record the whole record a second time which severely cut our already short time and rushed us to finish it. I was left with only three hours to record the vocals which was criminal! My dream is to some day re-record that record properly.
The third album is something totally different. This double disc consists of epic tracks that sound like the slowly changing wind bringing in small particles of electro dust on top of a base of hazy drone abstraction and creaking noises that at any given second could breathe to life. It's a quiet aural collision that shimmers, drones, swells and vibrates in a way that brings to mind equal parts Montreal experimentalism in general and the mighty Double Leopards. How did this album come about?
Well that is a good question, it’s funny because chronologically it is the first full “record”, we did stacks of songs before it, but it was the first finished project, yet we released it third, which I think was probably a good idea on the part of Alien8. Jeff Krones and I used to live together in this old Shriner’s temple, and Jeff is a fabulous musician inventor and person all around and now he is a fabulous Daddy as well! Anyway, he used to weld at our house and make different things and we would dream up instruments and make them, etc. Anyway one day we found the shambles of an upright piano that fell out of the back of a truck as it rounded a corner near our house. We took all the parts and made different instruments out of each bit of detritus. One of which is the main instrument that you hear in the self-titled double disc. It was a piano sound board bolted directly into the floor of our second story loft and then we ran bulk piano wire across the floor to the other end of the temple, so the lengths of string were each different from 50ft to 10ft long. There was a natural sound/resonance because the wood of the floor and the walls etc. sang when the strings were bowed, but we compounded this by putting pick-ups on the ground and sticking guitars under the strings so that the guitar pick-ups would amplify the bulk strings we had strung along the floor, for a day or two we just played and played on it like kids, using drills and bows and forks and just trying everything we could get our hands on. It was amazing as a musician because usually as a musician you are always outside and over an instrument which can be a position of oppression sometimes, in this case you were IN the instrument, and that was an incredible thing, especially at night when you got up to pee, because your footsteps would cause the floor to vibrate and then in turn the strings and then in turn the building itself. Fantastic! Like being the dancer and the musician at the same time, somaglyphically sculpting the music from the air around you as you danced. Anyway, my head is like a non-resting scuzi drive, when it comes to music and I started memorizing the possible sounds this instrument could produce and what instruments would sound good with these sounds and even more importantly which musicians with which instruments would go well with the possible sounds in this instrument, like crazy John Woo and his obsession with mentally putting certain guns in the hands or each actor before even conceiving the plot of the film. So once I had figured out who and what instruments, we got Bryan Hoffa (who also just did our two newest records Ardent Fevers and Poulos) to come over and engineer it with an 8 track reel to reel. We threw mics all over the place cause it was impossible to determine and therefore isolate where the sounds were coming from because they were coming from everywhere at the same time, you were in the music. Everyone arrived and I had devised a plan for improv based on a story I heard. It is impossible to write an improv cause it is not an improv anymore if you do, but sometimes improv can be fruitless, especially in front of microphones if everyone is not of like mind or at least thinking in the same direction. The shorter disc was influenced by a Bill Viola installation that I saw in San Francisco, and the idea for that was just to be inside of the music to have all of the sounds raining down on you and simultaneously being inside each drop of that same drenching rain, but the longer one was based on the story of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother Paul, who was a pianist, who during the war lost his arm, according to the story I heard he continued to compose pieces for the piano and to play them himself. Ok, now if it was like the drummer from Def Leopard, Rick Allen, it would be a story of triumph, and therefore very near to my heart, but no this was different and it captured my imagination. He wrote as if for two hands but the notes that the missing limb would have played were omitted, but the intervals were not, so there was this phantom limb that was playing phantom notes, notes that you could hear in your mind because the notes from the present existing hand lingered and pined for those missing notes and in the desperation of their want you could hear the tone and quality of these missing notes. It was their absence that made them so much more present, like the face of a lover whose love has gone to sea or war or to the other side, you can see that missing person better in the lack than if there was a picture of them before your eyes, because when you see or listen, it is so often superficial or understood, but when you imagine it, it is sometimes so much more complete and beyond possible reality. Like the image of a story in your head as you read the book and then the actual movie pales in comparison. Sometimes the movie is even better, but more often than not “the book is better” because the movie in your head knows no budget or boundaries. So I explained this to everyone, and then explained that I thought it was impossible for us to play like this, sure we could try, like putting on a blindfold for the day, but in the end you are not blind, you know you can remove the blindfold, and most importantly you never really have the feeling of missing your capacity for sight. So I asked everyone to imagine not that they were missing an arm, because this wouldn’t really work, but to imagine that they had had a third arm which was now missing and to play as if the interval for that third arm was still there. And the result of this is what is on the longer disc. We were very lucky with the recording because it was live straight to tape and there were no over dubs, a second wave of luck was that Phil, Bryan and I were all learning how to engineer at Sound of Music and so were able to use their board to mix this improv for free on New Year’s Eve because there were no bands in the studio, and then perhaps the greatest stroke of luck was that the before mixing these discs I had the great opportunity of meeting Ronan Chris Murphy and we really hit it off, finally I told him about the double disc and that we were mixing it the following day if he wanted to stop by and hear what we were up to. He said he would but only for a few minutes. He arrived, and after five minutes of listening to us mixing it he jumped on the board pushed us out of the way and mixed the whole thing and then took it to Seattle to mix it at Mater Works with Barry Corliss. These guys have done records for everyone from King Crimson to NIN to you name it, really pro and really nice guys, not just because Chris mixed it for free and they did the mastering at the cost of the mastering disc, but because they believed in us and wanted to help us.
It's a surprisingly avant-garde inspired listen that presents new aspects with every listen and has an emotional depth that many albums along these lines are lacking. Where do you think these organic qualities come from?
I think they come from the fact that we all played together in many different groups and formations of Tanakh before recording it, the fact that we all had the same emotional idea, that I was just talking about, and I think a large part of it came from the fact that we all practiced/jammed/hung out in this space for years in many different groupings and formations and now here we were in this very familiar comfortable place and now this place was the instrument we were improvising to, it was as if we were playing back our experiences of the past there with a collective voice. Like appeasing the building that hosted us. In fact, stupid romantic superstitious tit that I am I use to turn on the Double Disc every time I would leave the warehouse as if it soothed the ghosts there, which were many!
Tell us about the upcoming album?
Wow! I am really excited about this! In fact we recorded two records at the same time Poulos and Ardent Fevers. We are still yet to find a home for Poulos which is really poppy and light, but Ardent Fevers will be out by the end of February. There were some hang ups along the way with when to release it, mainly my fault, so it is coming out a long time after it was actually recorded, but I think it still sounds contemporary and fresh. Full of beautiful melodies, and orchestrated parts, with loads of destroyed-psych-rock guitar workouts. It is much lighter and happier and yet at the same time darker in its darkness, like somebody fooled around with the brightness/contrast button on your T.V. or computer, and it is MUCH groovier than any of the past Tanakh recordings which mainly is a result of writing the songs with Umberto, who is now the principle lead guitar in Tanakh. Clarke Hedgepath still plays on every song and is still both Umberto and I’s hero, but Umberto and I live together and therefore end up developing the songs together. It has been so great working with Umberto, he often comes up with hooks and I write the chords structure underneath and sometimes I have this pretty progression that I’ll show him and he just springs this great hook to accompany it. As a result, I have started thinking more in a groove oriented way myself and have been writing in that direction, which has been a great experience for me, it is so nice to grow and not just keep doing what you’re good at but to learn to be better at other things, different facets of the things you love to do. This record was recorded by Bryan Hoffa who recorded our double disc so it was like coming home. Bryan is a fantastic and ever improving engineer and so easy to work with. Over the last few years he has done some really impressive work, from Labradford to Neil Hagerty to Camper Van Beethoven to Brother JT, but man he is just so easy to work with, so encouraging and attentive and most importantly PRESENT. He is always THERE when he is there, you know? What a great quality in a person let alone someone you are trusting to capture the sounds locked in your mind and heart, especially when you aren’t quite sure where you put the key to that lock when you came home from the bar last night. Also really exciting for us was to have Isobel Campbell and Alex Neilson playing with us and their influence and additions really brought out the best in all of us, let alone great laughs and bringing me back to the dark side of smoking cigarettes again (thanks Alex!…laughing).
I know you’ll be playing Terrastock 6 in Providence, RI in April. I suspect that you’re pretty excited about that, right?
Oh god yes! It is a dream come true! Mainly just to play for Phil and everyone who through their writing and passion for music has enriched my life so so so much. It is not the show that is so exciting, it is the chance to give that feeling back.
There are some tours coming up next year. Where are you going?
Oooh, touchy subject. We are dieing to go on tour and chomping at the bit to do so, in fact we would be ready to go tomorrow if someone called. But that is the problem, we need to find someone who wants to book us and get us on the road. Sleeping on floors and such is no problem, it is just finding some who can guarantee that we can play a show every night, if we could find somebody crazy enough to put us on the road night after night we could play till Keith Richards dies, in short, forever. We do have a tour in Finland like a week or two after Terrastock but nothing else concrete as of yet. We live in Italy now so we are in a nice place to play anywhere in Europe, and we will be back in the States probably permanently next summer so we hope that we can play on both sides of the pond a whole lot this year.
Dreams for the future?
To tour as much as possible, starting tomorrow. To record this ancient Russian folk song I heard with a male and female call and response, I would love to record it with Chan Marshall her voice would be perfect for it. To have PJ Harvey produce our next record. To actually have enough time and money to record a record the way I hear it in my head, instead of in a handful of days. To write something as magnificent as the stuff Ghost writes. To learn to play the piano for real instead of just fumbling around by ear. To learn to write songs for my voice. To write Soul songs. To finally finish this solo record I have been threatening to make. To have a week alone with a DAT and a reel to reel and a good mixing board to compile and mix all the improv and jams that we have done over the years with all the different members of Tanakh and our friends and heroes etc. that would be a five CD box set of blessed out psych-folk, if I could ever get the chance to do it. And Pints with you and all my friends in April at T6!
I'll drink to that, too! Eternal thanks to both Jesse for his time, and his undying support for all things Terrascopic down the years, and to Mats for finally making my dream of doing Tanakh justice in print a reality. Phil.
Photo credits: Pictures #2, 4 and 6 are by Francesco Ristori of Iris.
Picture #7 is by Chia-chi Charlie Chang (who did the cover for 'Dieu Deuil'
and 'Ardent Fevers'). Photos #3 and 5 are by Alan Davidson of Kitchen Cynics
at Drumblair Lodge
© This feature: Terrascope Online, December 2005