Jessamine

Although I've always argued that there's no such thing as a "typically Terrascopic band" because our interests are so diverse and our breadth of coverage so purposefully eclectic, certain groups and artists do, I must confess, feel as if they belong in these pages even before we've written a word about them. Cul de Sac were a prime example, Magic Hour another more recent one; bands who, sometimes unwittingly even, create sounds which touch so many familiar nerves that you fall instantly in love. I knew from the moment I set eyes on Jessamine therefore that my heart was lost, and as soon as I heard her voice there was no going back. With a sound that shimmers holographically around oscillating Moog synthesizers laced with reverberating male/female vocals and gorgeously fuzzed guitar licks, Jessamine don't so much occupy similar space to Spacemen 3, Can and Flying Saucer Attack as orbit existentially over a stereophonic floatation tank of their own design, balancing experimental sounds against distinctive melodies and percussive insights to create a base from which to explore inner space. Their two early singles ('Ordinary Sleep' c/w a cover of Alan Vega's 'Cheree' and 'Cellophane'/'(I'm Not Afraid Of) Electricity', both on their own Silver Apple label, led directly to a signing with Chicago's Kranky Records label who in turn released their self-titled debut LP/CD in 1994, a graphical masterpiece which blew away my turntable the moment it landed and has rarely left it for long since.

Before getting on to discuss the album however, I particularly wanted to ask the band about the Silver Apples reference. The 'Cellophane' single came in a sleeve which perfectly parodied the revered (around here, anyway) 1968 Silver Apples debut album on Kapp, the twin apples replaced ingeniously by effects pedals. The groundbreaking late 60s New York experimental electronic duo of Dan Taylor and 'the Simeon' are hardly a household name, and it struck me as delightfully strange, and yet another confirmation that here was a band we needed to investigate further, that Jessamine should pick up on them. Jessamine's Rex Ritter:

"The people who know about Silver Apples are pretty few, and the people who know about us are probably even fewer, so not too many people recognise the reference! The Silver Apples influenced our ideas about tone and wavering pitch and we thought we should pay them our proper respects. The references also hint at earlier electronic experiments from Morton Subotnick, which is where I suspect the Silver Apples lifted their name. We're still very interested in constructing our own 'keyboard' like the Simeon. The Silver Apples keyboard sounds were really fucked up. I love that kind of sound, like Suicide's, VU's 'Sister Ray', Funkadelic's 'Free Your Mind', Can in some places. I want to hear tones that sound like they're shredding the speakers, which is also true of my guitar tone. There are times when it's just perfect. The best reference I can think of is the guitar tone on the intro to The Swell Maps' 'Let's Build A Car' that appears on the 7" version and on later reissues.

"We've performed The Silver Apples songs 'Oscillations' and 'A Pox On You' live. Pox we did with Sonic Boom on vocals here in Seattle and we are currently recording it with him for a label over there in England, can't remember which one. Our live shows have changed a lot. Currently we play what we're working on in our improvisations, so the songs are around 7 to 15 minute instrumentals or have sparse vocals. They develop as we go and are not set in any way. We're still a step away from playing totally "free" when we're in clubs. Right now we only play like that in our basement where we're set up to record whenever we play. We listen back to the themes and play versions of the songs live. Hopefully we'll get to the point where we won't have that step any more. That's my goal."

From the opening Moog oscillations of 'Another Fictionalized History' through to the rock-heavy guitar/vocal duelling of 'Secret', Jessamine's debut album features an intro which has rarely been more powerful or had such immediate impact, and by the time the tsunami rush/eye-of-the-storm dynamics of 'Royal Jelly Eye Cream' gets under way the band have already attained terminal velocity. The CD version also features the earlier single 'Cellophane' as one of two "bonus" cuts, as perfect a piece of melodic trance-rock as ever saw the light of your daydream which couples synthesised electronic storms with robust flanged-fuzz guitar riffs; other highlights include the entrancing flight of the hover-fly entitled 'One Trick Pony', the experimental percussive interplay of 'Don't You Know That Yet?' which finally blossoms beautifully into a solemn howl of electronically generated otherworldiness and, by way of a contrast, the fragile pop of 'Lisboa' which just cries out to be the B-side of a single. Rex (again):

"The LP was recorded whenever we could make time over the course of three months. My brother had moved to NYC eight months previously and came back for a week to play on the basic tracks. We did a couple of live shows to warm up and then recorded all the basics in two days. We had the help of an engineer during those two days only, and then Andy engineered everything else. Those days were probably 15% of the total time put into it. We hadn't played any of the songs on the 'B' side with Jason before we recorded them."

Jessamine's next release was, somewhat unexpectedly perhaps, a 33rpm 7" for Sub Pop. Here again the packaging was remarkable: several pieces of screen printed card with the single sandwiched between the folds, all held together by a nut and bolt. The titles were 'Your Head Is So Small It's Like A Little Light' c/w 'Soon The World Of Fashion Will Take An Interest In These Precedings' [sic], the former featuring a repetitive vocal refrain framed by rolling bass and some suitably oscillating Moog and the latter sidling in on a darkly gothic organ pitch which gradually gives way to howling, yet understated, feedback: chilling stuff indeed!

Formed in 1991 when guitarist (credited in time-honoured fashion as "pedals") Rex Ritter and oscillating Andy Brown started playing together in Olympia (WA) with their friend Megan, who has a Portland-based band called Swoon 23 (one album on T/K Records). They moved to Seattle in 1992 and hooked up with drummer Jason Jones, Rex's brother from their home-town of Galion, Ohio and also sometimes known as J. Lotts, and bassist/vocalist Dawn Smithson. Together they formed the band Jessamine, lifting the name from '10,000 Dreams Interpreted'. It was this line-up which recorded all their material up to their Sub Pop 7", when Jason was replaced by Michael Faeth. Rex:

"That 7" was just a one-off release. Jonathan Poneman heard us at a show and liked us, so he asked us to do a single. We wanted to make sure we did something that was obviously different to most Sub Pop releases, hence the long tracks, titles and packaging. The '...World of Fashion...' title came from some documentary, I think it was either about fame or was titled 'Fame'. It was improvised to 4 track cassette with another drum track on top of the old one. The title of 'Your Head...' was from a four year old girl named Gida. It's mainly about my friend Megan, Virginia Woolf and suicide. Megan's head is the little light. We were playing the thing that we took into the studio and made into 'Your Head' and eventually ended up playing 'Soon The World', so it was a 25 minute, unplanned jam that we turned into the two sides of the single.

"That tends to be our current method of working and recording. We bought a half-inch reel to reel 8 track recorder and sit in the basement and improvise to tape. We generally have no starting point or chord structure when we begin and it seems to work out pretty well. I understand this is the method Can were using during their brilliant period with Damo Suzuki. We're working on more subtle song structures and sprawling lengths. Cluster II is a good reference here. We'll probably return to the shorter format song on the third record. The second album is designed with the hardcore experimentalists in mind. It'll be a double LP [on Kranky] and we're hoping for a January 1996 release."

Finally, as if to confirm that bands don't come much more "Terrascopic" than Jessamine, they are also recording one side (20 - 25 minutes) for a limited edition double LP to be released on the Drunken Fish label which features several other names which should be familiar to most regular PT readers: Bardo Pond, Roy Montgomery and Flying Saucer Attack. Love 'em one and all, and Jessamine are at the very top of my playheap right now.

Written, produced & directed by Phil McMullen, with particular thanks to Rex Ritter for his time and patience. Ptolemaic Terrascope, October 1995