5 Questions: Chester Hawkins

IMG_7966

I’ve never spoken with sonic dadaist Chester Hawkins about aliens, but I have a hunch he’s a believer.

In fact, I’m convinced the ominous sci-fi drones of “K516156​/​91044,” the 7 inch single released by Hawkins in August 2020 is NOT the result of some modular synth mutation, but rather a field recording of the inside of an alien spacecraft. How else could these harrowing sounds exist? There is life on other planets, and it ain’t pretty.

It’s no surprise that Hawkins can evoke the scariest of sci-fi imagery in his work. The long-time DC – and now Baltimore – resident has specialized in crafting surreal sonic creations that could only be of extraterrestrial origin since 1985. For over 35 years, Hawkins has been pushing the boundaries of sonic possibility in ways that defy expectation and easy categorization, deftly balancing dark psychedelia and pulsing Krautrock and yes — field recordings.

The fact that Hawkins has been a frequent live performer at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE in our nation’s capital speaks to the affinity we have for this very special madman’s avant-renegade approach to music making.

We could not be more excited that Chester Hawkins’ first show since the pandemic started is the September 10, 2021 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE. To mark the special occasion, I asked Hawkins “5 Questions” to see how he’s holding up during the age of COVID-19 and learn more about his unorthodox methods to his musical madness. Read on…

1) I’ve always thought of you as a quintessential DC musician (some of your records even feature field recordings from Rock Creek). I know you recently relocated to Baltimore. What prompted the move and how do you like it so far? Do you see some interesting possibilities there?

CH: It was pure economics. DC has been unsustainably expensive for ages. Neighborhoods have gone from under-supported areas with long family histories to glossy, bourgeois nightmares in one step, pricing out the old-timers in favor of Brunch Zombies with credit cards. At some point while I was too busy or not paying attention, the “tyranny of affluence” rushed into my city and plucked out its heart. SAD.

Then I realized I never considered Baltimore, after growing up in & around DC, just a short hop away. Came to find out it has much more economic diversity and independent/small business, it has more of its old residential architecture intact (why must DC knock down anything over 20 years old?), flavor. Vibe. Life. 

Of course there are huge swaths of Baltimore City that are long neglected and in dire need of some progressive econ solutions, some care and support. It’s a complicated place with many faces. But for me, it was finally time to cut DC loose & stop blowing half my income on simple housing.

Baltimore DOES have a scene for creative music, at least I think it does. With COVID, I’ve made zero attempts to assimilate so far, but seriously looking forward to it. Small venues not afraid of mysterious music…… that’s the target. Just need to get a certain pandemic out of the way.

IMG_7778

2) You’ve been making experimental music, for lack of a better term, since 1985 or thereabouts. That’s quite a run for any musician, let alone someone known in underground circles for twisting and turning all manner of odd sounds into unusual shapes and permutations. I’m curious to know – how do you keep your creative fire burning so bright for so long? (A Replicant named Roy Batty also wants to know).

CH: I realized that “creative fire” needs to be snuffed out sometimes, to keep it creative. I’ll walk away from all music production for ages, to clean out the old habits. Shortly before COVID I decided to take a year off and shut the whole thing down. I had been noticing certain patterns forming in the creative process, it was getting predictable, and that’s not good. This is extremely SELFISH music: The goal is to enjoy the ride and forget I’m driving in the first place… to be surprised by what’s happening, and revel in it. 

So the plan was to take a year off and basically forget everything, then turn on the lights, fire it up again, and see what “music” sounds like. Then came COVID, and I decided to keep the muse deep in the grave for a little longer, and really push the experiment. 

I started getting the itch again about a month ago, so this event at Marx is the perfect kick in the arse to get going & see what happens.

IMG_1620

3) From a gear standpoint, what are you using these days to create the “Chester Hawkins” sound? Are there specific modular synths that you tend to gravitate to? Has your sonic arsenal changed much in recent years?

CH: Field recordings have been a recent thing, a way of bringing some (literal) fresh air into a piece. Recording environmental stuff from a significant place and finding some narrative arc in the sound, then using the older instruments to play against it. Build this really elaborate sonic scene with many layers, all influenced by a faint impression in a background field recording. Then take the background away and you’re left with this deliberate (but totally mad) structure. 

That’s how the “Magnetisk Nord” CD came to be. I went to Denmark and walked the streets of Copenhagen, Helsingør, and Aarhus with an audio recorder, capturing street musicians, parents with strollers walking past, the water and boats in Roskilde Fjord, various things. Walking all day doing this, then staying up all night in the room, building the piece. So it was also an experiment in massive sleep deprivation.

a0406786981_10

4) I think of you as having a special talent for improvisation, but as your 2017 LP “Natural Causes” demonstrated, you are just as comfortable creating composed music. I know you’ve made several more albums since then. How do you feel these days about improvised vs. composed sounds? Has your perspective changed at all?

CH: Definitely want to get back to the composed stuff. “Magnetisk Nord” was composed, so to speak, on the operating table, whereas “Natural Causes” was really mapped out from the beginning. By the end of that project, the studio looked like a conspiracy-theory nutcase basement, with notes and scribbles on cards everywhere. Chaotic in a different way, but it does yield a really different sound. 

Many of the other releases were compilations of live-in-studio moments — excerpts of improv sessions. So naturally those capture a different energy: more of an urgent, animal-brain vibe. 

Perhaps the answer is……. no change in perspective, but the goal is to rotate between those methods and always offer something fresh.

5) Your live shows have always been something to behold. I know that in some experimental music circles it is verboten to think of shows as “entertainment” but damnit Chester, your shows are entertaining. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but I feel you even have a bit of a “showman” quality to your performances, albeit in the best possible avant-garde “let’s blow the roof off this venue” kind of way. Am I way off base here? How do you see your live shows?

CH: HAHA! You may be thinking of the Blue Sausage Infant days there: That project was 100% rooted in that animal-brain, immediate-magic thing. There were costumes and insanely edited video projections, or accomplices in costumes doing irrational things during the set. One favorite set at Velvet Lounge DC involved reaching a totally nuts musical crescendo, setting it on auto-pilot, and letting it go while firing confetti guns over everyone with strobe-lights, so it was impossible to see what was falling on people. I think that was during the “ghillie-suit” era, so I’m dressed as a giant lump of moss during this madness. 

What did it all mean? Absolutely, aggressively, arbitrary nothingness. It meant nothing but Here and Now.

But alas, I’m a distinguished older gentleman now and the theatrics have mellowed in favor of a more careful musical experience. No more rabbit costumes and confetti, but I still love to generate an overwhelming sea of audio for a room, “beautiful” in maybe a psychedelic sense, but with a little friction in the mix, a little tension to keep things from getting TOO pretty. It might be tribal and pounding or it might be abstract textures and drones — 

It’s all different paths to the same place. No maps allowed, you’ll know you’re there once you arrive..!

Listen to and purchase Chester Hawkins’ music on Bandcamp. And be sure to check out Chester’s live show at the Friday, Sept. 10 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE in-person (3203 Mt. Pleasant St NW DC 20010) OR online via Zoom. Register for the Zoom link at: bit.ly/WFTBO_CHESTER. The show kicks off at 10pm EST.

September2021

5 Questions: Ice Out

It’s been interesting to see the different ways the pandemic has affected creativity. Just look at Ice Out.

Ice Out_2541

The Alexandria-based instrumental trio specialize in music perfect for late night strolls, with their 80s-infected sonic landscapes owing equal debt to the reverb and delay school of Will Sergeant and the ominous dread of early John Carpenter. The band, which features David Barker’s spindly, echoey guitar, Chris Zogby handling percussion and Dex Fontaine on bass, found a new creative spark during those long lockdown months, aided and abetted with some new gear and new thinking. The end result: Ice Out has pushed its dreamlike sounds forward.

Following the release of Ice Out’s self-titled 4 track EP in April 2019, Ice Out took some time to refine its updated approach, then came back in full force with an unbelievable cover of Wham’s “White Christmas” in November 2020. (If you haven’t heard it yet, stop reading this feature and go to Bandcamp NOW). From there, the band has been on a creative hit streak, releasing one stellar single after the next, with the latest being “Breakers.” And this is just a taste of what’s to come.

With Ice Out set to return to WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE for the first time in two years, I thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with David and Chris via our monthly ritual of asking “5 Questions.” Read on!

1) It’s been a while since Ice Out played We Fought the Big One in 2019 and A LOT has happened. What’s it been like to keep the band going through the pandemic? Was there ever a time when it was a challenge to feel creative?

Chris: It was different. We stopped rehearsing in-person from March until June of 2020 because of the pandemic.  Initially, that was tough to adjust to. Without gigs to prepare for, we focused on recording music on our own without the aid of a studio and an engineer, and creating video content for the songs on our 2019 EP.  In 3-4 months after purchasing and learning several software packages, we had new material tracked, plus YouTube channel content.  I’d say the pandemic challenged us to be creative in new and different ways, which we’ve benefited from ever since.

David: We kept plugging along and working. I started taking guitar lessons early on from Tommy Kessler from Blondie. Great guy, I’ve learned a great deal of music theory that I’ve applied to the new Ice Out material. 

2) One of the things I appreciate most about Ice Out is how the band uses space in between sounds. It’s not just that you’re creating music that feels ethereal and hypnotic (and increasingly electronic), it’s that you’re creating music that feels vast. Is there a specific vibe or feeling that you’re aiming for when making music?

Chris: I’m going to say that in everything we do, we try to inject something spacey, hypnotic, psychedelic, and/or nostalgia-inducing into the mix.

David: I’m a big believer in negative space and letting music breathe. If you listen to a lot of the groups we love, whether it is Echo & The Bunnymen, The Chameleons or even stuff like Tangerine Dream, there is an incredible amount of room and air within the music.

http://

3) “Breakers” is the latest in a string of excellent single track releases for the band. I love the way the track intersperses Georgio Moroder/early John Carpenter-inspired electronics with your trademark guitar dreaminess and love for space. What can you tell us about this track in particular?

Chris: Dave came up with the main riff, then added the highly-compressed, delayed guitar part to complement it.  Since we were trying to sound ‘less rock’, I played spin-the-dials-on-the-synthesizer to see what sounds would work well with Dave’s guitar parts. In the meantime, Dave was starting to get comfortable with the new modeled guitar amp plug-ins available in his DAW. Tinkering with the amp plug-ins quickly turned into tracking solo and supporting rhythm guitar parts. Dave’s work was so inspiring (to me), that I dropped everything else to mix that section of the song. Once that was done, I switched back to working on the arrangement. Things fell into place pretty quickly from that point onwards, and “Breakers” was born.

David: I think the riff came up one afternoon with probably an 80’s Horror Movie on in the background. I’m a big fan of chimey, bell-like guitar sounds so I probably was trying to rip-off Tubular Bells, the Exorcist theme. The guitar solo is one of the more technical things I’ve played, so the lessons really have paid off.

4) Ice Out has been releasing individual tracks pretty consistently since November 2020 (including a jaw-dropping cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas”!) instead of EPs or albums with long gaps in between. What went into your decision to take this approach? Should we look forward to more single releases in the future?

Chris:  We wanted to stay productive during the pandemic. Releasing singles with video content seemed like the best approach in that regard.  Now that we are able to get into a studio and work with an engineer, we’ll likely release a 5-6 song EP next.

David:  We’ve had interest in an EP, so I think the 5-6 song route is next. Singles during the pandemic seemed to be the way. I kind of felt we were doing it in a Factory Records way of single after single. 



5) What does the future hold for Ice Out from a musical standpoint? Are there sounds/approaches you foresee wanting to explore? 

Chris: Adding sequenced parts, using a hybrid acoustic/electronic drum set up, and visuals for live shows is high on the list of priorities.  

David: I think incorporating more electronics within our sound . I’ve been on a big Tangerine Dream kick the past few months so some of the ambient hypnotic sound will appear on the new material.

Listen to and buy Ice Out’s music on Bandcamp and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. And check out Ice Out’s set at the Aug. 7, 2021 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE in-person (3203 Mt. Pleasant St NW DC 20010) OR via the LIVESTREAM on Zoom. The show kicks off at 10pm EST.

August2021

5 Questions: Tristan Welch

Tristan Welch is not like other DC-area musicians.

(Photo by Cameron Whitman)

For starters, his day job is a little unusual. Tristan works at a funeral parlor in northern Virginia. He is literally surrounded by death on a daily basis. That might sound like a quote from an 80s goth band’s press release, but there’s no artifice about the moody atmospherics he creates. Tristan is the real deal.

Then there is the prolific nature of Tristan’s output. The operative word being PROLIFIC. This is a man who is relentless in his drive to create. “Temporary Preservation,” Tristan’s latest album, and possibly his most absorbing, was released in April 2021, just five months after his previous record, the excellent “Ambient Distress.” That was one of four releases Tristan put out in 2020. You read that correctly. Four releases in one year. Clearly, the pandemic has done nothing to stifle his creativity.

Speaking of creativity, perhaps what’s most remarkable about Tristan is the artistic growth on display with each release he unveils. “Temporary Preservation” might be the perfect encapsulation of his work so far. “Trying to Change the Weather,” the opening salvo on “Temporary Preservation,” evokes stark images of spiraling skyscrapers, empty cities, cold temperatures and grey skies (at least in my mind’s eye). Yet, these cinematic sonic vignettes also feel emotional and personal. It’s impossible not to be affected by Tristan’s creations.

One of the most memorable livestream sets at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE in 2020 was the show Tristan performed last December. The visual component of the performance was just as striking as the music itself. It is evident that Tristan sees this as an equally important part of his overall aesthetic.

With Tristan back to perform another livestream show for WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE to promote “Temporary Preservation,” I took the opportunity to reach out to him and ask a few more questions about his fertile creativity, what he thinks of Brian Eno’s edict on “mistakes,” and how he is feeling about our world at roughly the halfway point of 2021. Read on!

(“Temporary Preservation” album cover art Erik Ruin)

1) Congratulations on the release of “Temporary Preservation.” It might be your most immersive record to date. Clearly, you have an affinity for crafting sonic landscapes that aren’t just atmospheric, but also emotional and personal. Were there any specific feelings or experiences of yours that helped shape the sounds on this record?

Tristan: I actually sat down with this and told myself – I’m just going to make a record. Typically I have some sort of bigger vision but with this I just wanted to create. Having said that I feel the need to create because of emotions and experiences. The idea of Temporary Preservation came from wondering thoughts at the funeral home (my day job). Daily I’m trying to preserve memories figuratively and literally. So that gave me a starting point. Truthfully though, the feelings that formed the record came from generalized depression and anxiety – feeling alone in a crowded room. I didn’t even want to think “big artistic picture” with this. I just wanted full sounds that made feel better. It worked at the time. I struggle with feeling like my life has much meaning, I struggle finding relationships purposeful, I struggle generally being happy… but when I create these big waves of sounds – I get a sense of relief and feel like I have friends.

2) I am fascinated by how increasingly prolific you have become. I suspect many artists look at your prodigious output and conclude they aren’t working hard enough – LOL! What’s your secret? Do you just have an abundance of creative juices flowing or is it about your work ethic?

Tristan: I’ve had some friends mention how they wish they could produce as much as I have – I’ve also gotten criticism. The secret is I just I feel empty without working towards something and ultimately recording – at least currently – is my most obtainable medium. It used to be live shows; but right now putting out records suits me a little better. As much I hate the idea of “work” – I am a worker bee. Once I’m engaged in a process I want it finished. Once I’m finished I want to move on. I’m not a perfectionist… which helps. Not only do I enjoy creating music, I like getting artwork together, I like trying different formats, I like working PR… I like everything about it. It makes my life unmanageable – it gives me headaches – it strains relationships – outside looking in its probably extremely unhealthy. But I’m all or nothing. I need to work on art to feel like everything else I do has a purpose. I have so many projects that need to be started and it makes me sick to my stomach knowing they aren’t in process yet.

3) Brian Eno once said to “Honor Thy Mistake As A Hidden Intention.” Can you think of a time when you accidentally stumbled upon a brilliant sound or idea by accident and it steered you down a more interesting path?

Tristan: On this record you hear my first experimenting with playing “bass”. I stumbled onto a setting on my SY1 synth pedal that just sounded FAT. I’ve never been great at bass but I just tried to use it like any other sound – and guess what… it’s on every track! Completely by chance. I think that little sound helped me create a record which is kinda ambient/ drone but totally not because it has these little riffs guiding the piece. I’m very rehearsed for live shows… but yet I always screw something up- but I embrace it and sometimes get some cool things out of it. What I hate the most though is when a mistake was awesome and I can’t re create it! This record has a bit of that.

(Photo: Cameron Whitman)

4) Visuals have also been a big part of your live music aesthetic – from holding up physical signs with political slogans to displaying vignettes of film sequences. How would you explain your thinking into using visuals as part of the overall live experience, particularly more than a year into the pandemic?

Tristan: Well – I’m a solo performer with low confidence and self-esteem for one. So visuals help with that. Second I think performance is an art form in of itself. I don’t feel just hearing music live carries that much weight… I think it should be performed. The visuals help with creating that experience. Third is a bit like that last part – this is instrumental music… which is beautiful on it’s own.. but some context gives everyone an idea of where it may take you. I’m not a singer and while I’m capable of talking on stage… I feel we all talk enough. I’m still working on my visual skills though – I contemplate working with someone but it’s hard to get on the same page.

5) I recall a recent conversation we had about your music and I commented that there seems to be hints of light amidst the darkness. Since we are roughly at the halfway point of 2021, I wanted to ask – what, if anything, inspires you to feel hopeful?

Tristan: I’m generally discontent. I can be shopping at Safeway and wish I was at Giant – then go to Giant and say fuck this I should go back to Safeway. But I’m able to laugh about it. Even though so much is serious in life – how much does a lot of it matter? I don’t mean that in a nihilistic way (though catch me on a bad day I can go there). I just mean… it’s ok to laugh at the absurd. I can’t tell you how many times I’m arranging funerals for families and we end up laughing. It’s all a process… I’m hopeful that I am learning more daily and becoming a better person. What I’m not hopeful about is anyone noticing that, but at least I know it’s happening.

Listen to and purchase Tristan Welch’s new album “Temporary Preservation” via Bandcamp; follow him on Instagram and Twitter; and ‘Like’ him on Facebook.

Catch Tristan’s livestream show at the June 4 2021 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE. Register at: bit.ly/BigOne_WELCH

5 Questions: Sansyou

There’s something deeply personal about the way that DC-instrumental collective Sansyou affects me as a listener.

IMG_0422
(Photo: Rick Taylor)

No matter what emotional state I am in, the music of Sansyou never fails to calm me — to take me back to “center.”

Sansyou invites listeners to slow down. Chill out. And revel in the “nowness” of life’s precious moments. For me, listening to Sansyou isn’t about changing a mood – it’s about changing a perspective.

In that sense, I can’t help but think of Sansyou as the DC underground music companion to Eckhart Tolle’s influential book, “The Power of Now,” in which the author touts the concepts of self-reflection and presence in the moment as avenues of spiritual enlightenment.

Ever since the band debuted in 2011 with the sublime “When We Will Become Ghosts” EP, I have been captivated by Sansyou’s gift for conjuring magical moments of quiet transcendence from delicate guitar lines, sparse melodies and jangly guitar chords.

It’s been nearly 5 years since the last Sansyou release, but the stellar new EP “Eyes Front” is proof positive that the band hasn’t lost a step.

The line-up has changed (Sansyou is now a two-piece featuring creative mainstay David Nicholas on guitar and John Mark King on drums, percussion, treatments) but the luminous approach to introspective guitar has lost none of its luster.  If anything, Sansyou’s quiet power has only become stronger and more refined. Just listen to the beguiling title track of the new EP, which pairs a simple guitar melody to some gorgeous chord jangling and scales new celestial heights in the process.

I would argue that in today’s turbulent times, we need Sansyou’s music more than ever. I know I do. It’s reassuring to know the band is back and stronger than ever.

With Sansyou set to play the Friday, May 7th Livestream of We Fought the Big One, I got in touch with guitarist David Nicholas to learn more about the band’s return…

1) First, I want to start off by saying how excited I am that Sansyou is back. It’s been a few years since your last recording and a lot has happened since then. Can you share a little about what prompted Sansyou’s return? What was it like for you to bring Sansyou back during the pandemic?

David: The songs have their own way of making a case to be heard; that was the spark. As I started working with different people, it was fairly easy to envision a new Sansyou record taking shape. The pandemic can shut down creativity, or as artists we can react against it and in spite of it, find new ways to reach people as you’re doing with the Big One going virtual and keeping the Marx Cafe community connected. It all becomes that much more important, and you can see it from the banter during your live streams how vital it is to people.

Sansyou logo

2) One of the things I appreciate most about Sansyou is how you create these powerful sonic vignettes without relying on volume or effects pedal pyrotechnics. For me, “Eyes Front,” the title track of Sansyou’s new cassette, crystallizes what makes Sansyou so appealing: it melds gorgeous guitar chords that ebb and flow like ocean waves to a chiming melody that crests the surface like a bubble floating in water. What can you tell us about the creation of that track and how you feel when you play it?

David: Thanks for listening so closely. I took my time finishing this one and went through a few rough drafts. I wanted to have some dynamic shifts and more than one idea inside the melody, so I let that process unfold before settling on this arrangement. I try to get the drone strings to do the heavy lifting so that ebb and flow feeling you point out is physically what’s happening in the guitar parts. It’s rewarding to play and always a challenge.

IMG_0445
(Photo: Rick Taylor)

3) I would imagine the recording and mixing experience for “Eyes Front” was a little different this time given the constraints of the pandemic. What can you tell us about it?

David: Everyone masked up and we postponed the session once due to a possible exposure so when we did get together it was safe. I tracked all my guitars in one day and from there John added his keyboard parts and percussion later working remotely. In the past, I felt like mixing has taken too long for what it delivered. Mixing remotely was more efficient which opened more creative options with three alternate mixes we decided to include as companion pieces in the full release. These mixes leverage negative space more than I’ve been able to accomplish before – it’s more about taking things out and making room in the sound.  I’d never had the chance to experiment like that so I think the constraints were actually beneficial.

Sansyou Eyes Front image
(Photo: Stefan Rappo)

4) Artwork has long been an integral ingredient to the Sansyou aesthetic. What can you tell us about the striking image from Stefan Rappo that graces the cover of the new cassette?

David: I didn’t have a visual concept in mind for a long time. Throughout the writing and recording, I kept my eyes open, but it wasn’t until I saw Stefan Rappo’s work that it came together. He is based in Paris and does a range of portraits and still life subjects. There’s a kind of music inside his images that really resonated with me. His use of color also appeals to me especially on this one we used on the cover. I was very glad when he made it available to me. I always want unity in the cover art and the sound. I felt this image achieved that plus there’s maybe a bit of continuity from our first record too, so it comes full circle.

5) We are almost halfway through 2021. When you think about what lies ahead for you personally and for our society, what gives you hope?

David: You! Seriously, the fact that you found a way to persevere and keep the Big One going and all the good vibes that brings gives me hope. Staying optimistic is hard work, and I fall short often. But we are in a different and better place than before so I have to be thankful for that. Last week I got stuck in Vice President Harris’ motorcade and that reminded me how fortunate we are. And it feels good just to say it!

Catch Sansyou’s performance at 10pm EST on the Friday, May 7th Livestream edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE! Register for the Zoom link at: bit.ly/BigOne_SANSYOU

Listen to and purchase Sansyou releases on Bandcamp. Don’t forget to “Like” Sansyou on Facebook!

May2021

5 Questions: Secret Wilderness

The name Secret Wilderness conjures images of spacious landscapes and solitude — a place that nourishes the soul simply by its surroundings.

It’s a fitting moniker for the music and art project from DC-based multi-instrumentalist Jake Reid. Secret Wilderness offers listeners its own sonic landscape in the form of vast ambient atmospherics, electronic beats and random psychedelic space music. Secret Wilderness’ new tape, “The Endless,” is a gorgeous collection of tracks that are easy to lose yourself in.

The plaintive abstract delights that Reid creates with Secret Wilderness are a far cry from the piercing, wall-of-sound shoegaze that informed his previous projects, Alcian Blue and Screen Vinyl Image, the latter of which combined Reid’s love of Jesus & Mary Chain with his appreciation for John Carpenter soundtracks. “The Endless” has more in common with German electronic pioneers Cluster and Tangerine Dream than the influential Scottish brothers Jim and William who share Jake’s last name.

At the same time, it’s evident that the psychedelic sounds that helped define the U.K. underground in the late 80s/early 90s remain a key touchstone. The dreamy synths on “Holistic Glove” are pure Cocteau Twins, but with a Manuel Gottsching-inspired groove and more abstract electronic weirdness.

Just as impressive as the music itself is the featured art by Jake’s brother-in-law Justin Dodd. “The Endless” continues a tradition that started with the debut Secret Wilderness release where sounds from Jake and images from Justin combine together to form a whole aesthetic for the listener.

With Secret Wilderness set to perform the 17th Anniversary WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE Livestream via Zoom (click here to register), I got in touch with Jake to learn more about what’s been happening in his world since COVID-19 became a new unfortunate reality. As you can see below, our interview covers everything from finding creativity during a pandemic to love of genre and ruminations on the cassette tape resurgence. Read on!

1) How has the pandemic affected your creative process? Would it be fair to say that Secret Wilderness has become even more of an escape for you during COVID?

Jake: I wasn’t able to focus on much music last year, there were so many bigger things happening to pay attention and engage with. Terence (Anathemata Editions) messaged me later in the summer about getting the Alcian Blue tapes going and that’s how I got back into working on some new material. I recorded a lot of this tape, the MISTER JACKPOTS EP, and the W33DW01F EP in a short burst. I haven’t done much this winter, but I have mastered some cool records too, there’s always something creative happening.

2) Your love of German electronic music really shines through on this new release. I can hear bits of Tangerine Dream, Cluster and Manuel Gottsching in the way you use layers of electronic sounds, textures and hums to create something beguiling and hypnotic. What is it about the German-flavored electronic “komische” genre that speaks to you?

Jake: Lately it’s been out of a feeling of relational I guess. If you look at Germany during the time they were making those records, there was still this ghost of the not so distant past haunting the country on top of the Cold War. The music these artists were making is full of new ideas and possibilities. They pioneered a new sound that looked forward in a collaborative hopeful kind of way. I thought a lot about that and how it parallels with how things are now when I was working on the new tape.

3) While we are talking about genres, I want to ask you about shoegaze and dream pop. It was exciting to see the recent Alcian Blue cassette tape releases come out. Even though you have come a long way as an artist since you made those recordings, I still hear traces – and dare I say echoes – of the genre in Secret Wilderness’ music. Do you still see shoegaze and dream pop as part of your musical DNA?

Jake: I’m always exploring something new or trying something different but you’ll always hear traces of shoegaze in it. For the live set this Friday I’ve got about as many stomp boxes set up as I did on my guitar pedalboard. I always aim for Cocteau Twins sounding synths haha. It’s in my DNA, I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I go back and do another guitar record.

4) Cassettes have come back into fashion, at least for underground music collectors. What’s your take on why audio tapes are coming back? Is it all about nostalgia?

Jake: Tapes for me personally are how I got into music. It was the cheap format when I was growing up where you could get used tapes (Record & Tape Exchange College Park shout out!) for like $2.99. So instead of going and buying a new tape for $11.99 you could get a few tapes and be able to expand your music palette more. I know the format really well and personally it’s always been a favorite format to listen to music. Kim has a dub of Pretty Hate Machine on a TDK tape from the 90’s and that tape will destroy your speakers, it sounds bananas.

5) You’ve been making music for many years now, both as part of collaborative projects like Alcian Blue and Screen Vinyl Image and also as a solo artist, as well as a sound engineer. Over the course of your musical journey, what have you learned about yourself along the way?

Jake: All the different aspects of music are processes. Writing a song, practicing for a show, recording an album etc. And there’s highs and lows, accidents, mistakes, brilliant moments, and plenty of times where you have to work really hard for the desired result. Life is an even broader example of this. My new album explores a lot of these themes, the various loops in our lives that we either work on improving or work on getting out of and all of the ups and downs that go with it. I hadn’t really thought about it much before doing the Alcian Blue re-masters, but working on that project last summer got me thinking about how the music I’ve been a part of is a document of the journey and that’s pretty cool.

Catch Secret Wilderness’ performance at 10pm EST on the Friday, April 2nd 17th Anniversary Livestream edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE! Register for the Zoom link at: bit.ly/BigOne_SW

Listen to and purchase Secret Wilderness releases on Bandcamp and check out the Secret Wilderness website. You can also “Like” Jake’s Machine Drift page on Facebook, and follow Secret Wilderness on Instagram.

5 Questions: Jason Mullinax

To call multi-instrumentalist and label owner Jason Mullinax one of the most creative and prolific musicians in the DC region would be an accurate statement. But it would also be just part of the story.

Jason A Mullinax PicPhoto: Chris Videll

Mullinax is also equal parts educator and musical instrument builder. The two often go hand in hand. With his Music Discovery Lab workshops, Mullinax teaches all ages groups (often children) the joys of creativity and expression through making music. A frequent feature of these workshops is Mullinax’s proclivity for building custom-made musical instruments from disparate sources. He often eschews purely traditional approaches in favor of make-shift DIY creations consisting of household items and unusual sources.

The playfulness, enthusiasm and geeky adventurousness that defines his work as an educator and instrument builder is equally apparent in his solo recordings. “Living Memory,” released last June and “High Tide Falling,” released in December, underscore what makes Mullinax such a compelling musician. Both records boast their own sense of childlike wonder in the way Mullinax explores and combines new and old sounds together, fusing electronic and organic elements while obscuring which is which. Another record, “The Wandering Light,” will be released in short order. It’s clear the pandemic has proved to be an unexpected catalyst for creativity.

I can’t help but think that the drifting, circular sci-fi soundscapes of electronic pioneers Cluster have left an impression on Mullinax, though the latter’s work is far more percussive and grounded.

With Jason Mullinax set to play the Friday, March 5th Livestream edition of We Fought the Big One, I got in touch with him to learn more about what drives his creative process and how he ended up making such fascinating music. Read on…

1) How did you end up making the kind of music you do? Did you always have an affinity for more esoteric sounds?

Jason: I’m a true lover of music and have absorbed it like a sponge for most of my life. If I hear something that excites me it’s not long before I’m trying to incorporate those ideas into my own sound. Lately I’ve been really drawn to artists who create rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous music so you can really hear those concepts reflected in my most recent work. I try to create songs that are constantly shifting and moving in many different directions at once but without ever losing their shape or emotional content. It can be challenging at times but I think I’ve come up with a formula that works well for me.

When I first started writing my own music I didn’t really have a strong background in theory so it was hard for me to write songs in a traditional way (and if I’m completely honest, it still is). To compensate, I tend to focus more on rhythm, texture and form so I suppose that’s where I developed my love for nontraditional sounds and instrumentation. I’ve also been lucky enough to have assembled an amazing crew of collaborators who graciously lend me their time and talents when I need a hand. They give me invaluable advice and play all the amazing things I can’t so I have to give them credit for how much they’ve helped me to evolve over the years.

2) There is a tendency in the experimental music scene to make music that is largely conceptual and willfully difficult. You’re not like that at all. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I think your music is perfect for introducing pop listeners to experimental music. How important is it to you to make music for more than just the experimental cognoscenti?

Jason: As a fan of experimental music I can attest that it can get tedious and self indulgent at times. Especially if the conceit of the “experiment” overshadows the listenability of the piece. No matter how left field my music may get I’m always extremely aware of the listener. I firmly believe that experimental music can be palatable if you provide a foothold for people so I strive to make my records as accessible as possible but without compromising my overall vision. Primarily I make the music that I want to hear but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t also do it as a way of connecting to other people and turning them on to new things. I see it as a kind of energy exchange.

JM_High Tide Falling(Cover image of “High Tide Falling”)

3) Much of your work emphasizes percussion. I especially like the way you use rhythm as a focal point on “Wood Knot Eye,” the opening track of High Tide Falling. If you had to sum up your philosophy on how you approach percussion, what would it be?

Jason: Drums are my primary instrument so it would make sense that most of my music is focused through that lens. When I first started playing as a kid my mission was to be the “best drummer in the world”, whatever that meant. Over time, I stopped caring about how technical my chops were and I started focusing more on how creative I could be with the skills I already had. This isn’t to say that I didn’t want to get better but learning how to play 32nd note paradiddles with my feet at 250 bpms no longer seemed relevant to my musical goals. I became more interested in exploring different styles and seeing how far I could push myself creatively. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to play in marching bands, symphonic bands, jazz bands, and countless other ensembles and I’ve been drawing upon all of those experiences ever since. If I had to sum up my philosophy as a percussionist I would say it’s more important to be flexible and well rounded than to be super specialized in just one thing. Never be satisfied being just a drummer either and explore as much as you can!

JM_0020521325_10

4) I can’t help but detect a certain childlike wonder in your work, certainly in the sense of adventure and playfulness. To what extent does being a music teacher and working with kids infuse what you do?

Jason: I’ve always enjoyed infusing my music with a bit of playfulness, even when it’s sometimes more serious in tone. I guess that comes from my “anything goes” mentality to music making. At this point I’m not sure how/if being a music educator has affected how I create art but being the kind of musician I am has DEFINITELY affected my teaching. I stress to my students the importance of learning the fundamentals but ultimately those fundamentals are just a means to an end. In other words, I like to teach them what they need to know in order to do the things they want to do. Because of that I don’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Once they get proficient enough I start emphasizing creativity and helping them develop their own voice because ultimately I want them to go out into the world and be adventurous themselves!

5) You were kind enough to share a preview of your next record with me. I was struck by how cinematic and harrowing it sounds. It’s quite different from “High Tide Falling,” and that was just released in December 2020. What is it that drives your musical evolution? How do you see your next record fitting in with your journey as a music maker?

Jason: I’ve always been a restless spirit and for whatever reason this last year has been a creative high point for me. I feel awkward talking about it because I know how much people have lost due to COVID (myself included) and I never want to trivialize the heaviness of all that. Yet somehow, I’ve managed to draw upon those negative feelings of dread and isolation and channel them into something more positive. LIVING MEMORY and HIGH TIDE FALLING came together much, much quicker than what I’m used to. I almost didn’t trust the process because it felt too easy. The reality was I just finally became comfortable with myself as a musician. With all the doubt and uncertainty about the future looming over my head, I realized that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and I needed to make the most of every moment. I had finally found a voice so I threw myself into the work. I made sacrifices and compromises to make those records happen for sure but it felt like something that I needed to do.

The same with my newest one, THE WANDERING LIGHT, that’s coming out in the next several weeks. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at composing some extended tracks like my favorite 70’s prog bands and electronic acts but I was never successful making it happen. This time it just all seemed to fall into place and almost felt like a complete accident. While I know this newer album might be a bit more challenging for some, I think it will make sense at the end of the day once it’s placed alongside all of my other work. I’m not sure if I’ll ever make a record like this again but I’m certainly glad that I got it out of my system. It’s almost like recording THE WANDERING LIGHT has afforded me the freedom to go anywhere from here and nothing is more exciting to me than that.

Catch Jason Mullinax at 10pm EST on the Friday, March 5th Livestream edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE! Register for the Zoom link at: bit.ly/BigOne_JM

Listen to and purchase Jason’s music on Bandcamp here and check out his Music Discovery Lab website here. Don’t forget to friend Jason on Facebook, and follow Jason on Instagram and Twitter.

March

5 Questions: Teething Veils

A global pandemic. A racial reckoning. Misinformation. A violent attack on American democracy.

There’s a lot to feel anxious about in these strange and scary times. Fortunately, DC-based singer-songwriter Greg Svitil has an almost preternatural gift for crafting cinematic songs with the power to heal.  

Teething Veils

@roXplosion #dcrocks #a99ii

I should know. Throughout the pandemic, I have been leaning heavily on Svitil’s beautifully crafted creations to help me cope. Teething Veils, Svitil’s self-described “chamber folk” outfit with cellist Hester Doyle, released a must-hear album in August 2020 called “Canopy of Crimson.” Svitil has produced consistently excellent music throughout the years, but this latest opus is possibly his finest hour, crystalizing what makes his songwriting so special.

Even The Washington Post took notice. Music critic and former Q and Not U member Chris Richards praised “Canopy of Crimson” for the way Teething Veils transform songs that feel “funereal” into cathartic experiences, allowing “emotions to be purged and smothered, making time feel stranger than slow.”

I have not been shy about my love for Teething Veils. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the collective has performed at We Fought the Big One more than any other artist, including a Livestream show with Hester Doyle last October. It was a wonderful show, admittedly marred by some sound issues in the first half that prevented attendees from experiencing Teething Veils in its full glory.

I am delighted that Teething Veils is back to play again so soon. For the February 5th Livestream edition of We Fought the Big One, Svitil will be performing solo – much as he did when Teething Veils first started playing shows roughly 10 years ago. As he explains in our interview below, “playing alone allows the songs to show different parts of themselves, just as playing with a band does.”

As you can see from the interview, our conversation covered some fascinating ground, including the influence of cinema on his songwriting, the nature of creativity, the artistry of album sequencing, his definition of community and what he’s learned about himself through years of making music. Read on…


1) There’s always been a certain cinematic quality to Teething Veils, but never more so than on “Canopy of Crimson.” I especially love “Bare Trees, Silver Sky,” which features some truly gorgeous imagery with lines like “At dusk, the bare trees, caressed by silver sky are enveloped by the lamps that light the stillest nights” and “My car hums down the street, I look beyond the lonesome passenger seat at buildings rumbling in and out of focus.” To what extent does cinema inform your work? Do you see cinematic vignettes in your head when you’re writing lines like these?

Greg: Movies play a main role in how I make some sense of the world. The way that I relate with what I see on a screen is really similar to how I relate with music, books, and visual art. When I’m involved with making an LP I think of it as a movie or a three-act play; when I’m involved with making an EP, it’s like a short or a one-act play. I structured the first Teething Veils album Velorio based on how Michel Legrand unfurls the music in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg / The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as far as having a recurring melodic theme that begins with a pensive quietness, swells into an ebullition, simmers, and ultimately boils over. My brain tends to operate really visually, and I try to describe the images with words. Those scenes in “Bare Trees, Silver Sky” was just how the setting looked on a particular day when I was driving westward through D.C. at sunset.

2) Does songwriting ever come easy for you? Or is it always a struggle?

Greg: Words and melodies come in bursts, and I dig more carefully into the details in-between. I tend to not think of writing as something to struggle with, even as it comes in waves, and when the lulls aren’t to my liking. If I fight with how smoothly or quickly I’m writing, that’s just me trying to steer it, and I want to avoid doing that, to respect the practice.

If songs don’t come one day, they might come another day. Or, they might never come at all. And, that’s okay. Music doesn’t owe me anything, and I’m lucky to have had the songs that I’ve had. There’s a Phil Ochs song called “No More Songs” that ends his final studio album. It can be taken any number of ways, though I tend to hear it as being completely literal. One day, there just might not be any more songs. Any time now, they can stop showing up. At the same time, there’s a matter of faith that the well won’t dry up, that keeps a hum or a pulse going during the dry spells.

I’d probably not survive for very long without songwriting. The songs that come more slowly than others are just going at their own pace, and that’s more than alright with me. The ones that seem to fall out of the sky feel a little differently, too, than the ones that I spend months or years with before they really take shape. My teacher Erin Frisby knows which ones are which, from how they sound and how they present themselves. I don’t know what makes some of them come without a whole lot of effort while I get stuck on others. It might not be for me to know.

Teething Veils CoC Painting HiRes
“Canopy of Crimson” album artwork: Adam de Boer

3) This might sound like an odd topic for a question, but I’d like to ask you about album sequencing. Teething Veils is that rare artist where the order of the songs – the context in which the listener hears them – is just as important as the songs themselves. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. How important is sequencing to you? At what point do you start thinking about it when crafting an album?

Greg: That’s true that the order of the songs is just as important as the songs themselves. The sequence of songs on an album is important in the same way that the order of the scenes of a movie is important. With Teething Veils songs, it’s really clear from their early stages where they belong as far as placement within the larger body of music. When we came together as a band to make Canopy of Crimson, we fell into the habit of practicing the songs in the order of the album. Sometimes we’d play them in reverse-order. When we went in to record with Don Godwin, we played the songs in the album order in the studio. 

Once an album is written, I record sketches of the songs, just really bare guitar-and-voice or keyboard-and-voice embryos. I do this for every album to share with the band, so they can get to know them, and with our artist Adam de Boer, for him to start working on the painting for the album. When I was at this stage for Velorio, I also shared the sketches with my friend Ali Miller. She works in theater, and I’d worked for her as a sound designer for a stage show, and I was curious to hear her impressions. The song “Dinner Date” was part of the album at this stage, and Ali asked me why. She found it confusing to the narrative, and she was right. I realized in that moment that my motivation for including it on the album was to preserve it, in case I was hit by a bus. She said, “then why not record it, and leave it someplace else?” So, that’s what we did. The song eventually found a home on our third album, Sea and Sun. I’d nearly disrupted my own music with hastiness. Some songs just take longer than others to find their destination. 

4) I’d like to ask you about the word “community.” What does it mean to you? Has your concept of community evolved over time?

Greg: I was really introverted as a kid. I relied on my imagination and music to give me a sense of the world. When I was fourteen, I found punk and hardcore, and felt a kinship with people who I wasn’t related to by blood and who I didn’t know from school. Walking through life with that sort of a close-knit group of people showed me the power of exchanging ideas, mutual support, and healthy conflict resolution, and helped to align my moral compass over time. For the first twenty-one years of my life, I floated around a lot geographically, and anchored myself through maintaining correspondence with the people who I’d come up with. I landed in DC in 1998, and it took a few years for me to slow my momentum as a naturally more nomadic sort of person. I came to value the stability of having a geographic place to call home. The further I venture outward with touring and playing this music, the more I appreciate having that anchor to come back to at the end.

Human beings need other human beings. We help each other when individual or communal needs arise, when someone needs food or medical care, when someone needs snow shoveled from their sidewalk, when someone falls ill or dies; we provide what we’re able to, according to whatever it is that we each bring to the table. We find community in our neighborhoods, activist groups, arts scenes, churches, 12-step fellowships, and loads of other pockets of people, many of which I wouldn’t even be aware of due to my limited perspective. What my communities mean to me is forever evolving. I depend greatly on my loved ones, teachers, neighbors, and peers.

5) You’ve been making music for many years now, both as a solo artist and as part of bands. Over the course of your musical journey, what have you learned about yourself along the way?

Greg: I started writing songs when I was nine years old. My mother had a piano, which now lives with my aunt in Tennessee, and I’d fumble around with the keys, and use the bench as a drum. I started with guitar when I was twelve, and have played in bands since I was thirteen. I was never the most technically proficient musician, but I was passionate from day one. I’ve always thought of myself as part of a band. It’s true that there were years, and tours, when Teething Veils was just me, but I always thought of it as a band. There have just been times when it’s taken me a while to find band people, and I’d rather play than not play, so I’d play alone sometimes.

Playing alone allows the songs to show different parts of themselves, just as playing with a band does. Writing songs digs into a lot of what’s crawling around under the surface. I’ve discovered some pretty unsavory parts of myself through writing music. I’ve also found traces of light to stand in. I’m not the most articulate person verbally, but through music I’m able to be a part of a conversation. With music, I’m able to make some sort of sense of myself and the world, with more revealed with time and patience. There’s a great power in anything that shines a light on something that makes no sense until it makes some sense. 

Catch Teething Veils’ performance at 10pm EST on the Friday, Feb. 5th Livestream edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE! Register for the Zoom link at: bit.ly/BigOne_TVeils

Listen to and purchase Teething Veils music on Bandcamp here and check out the Exte Records website. Don’t forget to “Like” Teething Veils on Facebook, and follow Teething Veils on Instagram and Twitter.

February2021

5 Questions: Adriana-Lucia Cotes

There is something intensely personal about the music of DC-based singer-songwriter Adriana-Lucia Cotes.

Adriana-skeiky-33
(photo by Farrah Skeiky)

Whether she’s playing just acoustic guitar and singing, or embracing ethereal-sounding electronics, or turning up the angst as the vocalist for D.C. post-punk troublemakers Mock Identity, Adriana-Lucia Cotes’ music always feels REAL – and often raw.

This lack of artifice is a big part of what makes her music so compelling.

Adjectives typically used to describe post-punk vocalists — words like “detached,” “cold,” “indifferent” — could never be applied to Cotes. And that’s a good thing. As her solo recordings and performances demonstrate, there is a lot more to Cotes than post-punk. Even in her most unassuming moments, Cotes’ voice conveys a depth of feeling that is rare. Her lyrics are socially aware, intelligent and pointed at disrupting toxicity in its many forms — and always personal.

I am feeling very grateful for Adriana-Lucia Cotes’ music right now. We are living in an age where we are reminded on a daily basis (especially on Jan. 6, 2021) of the very real human cost of detachment. We need artists who aren’t afraid to feel — even if it means drawing from painful lived experiences. Cotes is an artist who is bold enough — and brave enough — to transform the pain of personal experience into transcendent moments of euphoria.

With Cotes set to perform at the first WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE Livestream show of 2021, we could not be more excited. Cotes kindly took time out of her busy schedule to answer 5 questions via e-mail. As you can see from our interview, she has some interesting things to say about her journey as a music-maker in our nation’s Capitol, her creative process both as a solo artist and as part of a band, and how she continues to feel hopeful in these frightening times.

Read on!

1) Can you tell us a little about your journey as a DC-based music maker? When did you first realize that you wanted to write your own songs?

Adriana: I’ve been playing music and singing since I was 8 years old, so music has always been a big part of my life. I moved to DC from the Maryland suburbs in 2011 and soon found myself in art-making communities, at the time I was already friends and acquaintances with a lot of local jazz musicians after working at music stores like Music & Arts and Dale Music in my teens. 

It took a while to find my footing and go for making my own music. In the beginning, I had a duo with another local musician, Johnny Fantastic (Di Lascio), and then began my own project and performed under the name Antonia. Then another few years after in my band Mock Identity.

I’ve made and created music since I was a kid, so you could say I’ve been writing songs for most of my life so far!

Adriana-Lucia Cotes at home — “Wild” (live on BTR tv)
http://

2) What is your creative process like? With a track like “Wild,” do you usually start with a vocal melody?

Adriana: I don’t have a usual process, because I’m in a different headspace or working with a different interest, or even trying to communicate something different. Sometimes, I have writer’s block, so then I’m forced to try something new. Wild is still in the works, in the sense that the acoustic version is not the final iteration. Something I’ve liked doing recently is writing a song on guitar and taking that idea, those chords, and creating a new version on synth. Guitar’s not my favorite instrument (not my least favorite either, I just have very stout hands), but it is one of the best for me to use to begin writing a song.

91UM-nhDRHL._SS500_

3) I love the sparse, almost ethereal electronic approach of your solo work on the “La Clave” EP as much as the more aggressive, overtly punk infected sounds of Mock Identity. What’s your take on making music as a solo artist versus playing with a band?

Adriana: They’re different experiences, both of which have taught me a lot. Playing in a band is so much fun because you’re feeding off of each other’s energy, and therefore sharing the load of any logistical or aspirational goals you’d like to accomplish. It’s also nice doing everything your way, without anyone else’s input when working alone. I wouldn’t have been able to be an integral part of my band’s sound without already having done my work as a solo artist, and I wouldn’t have learned how to really motivate myself to keep playing shows (or even release an EP) if it hadn’t been for who I met and what I learned in the band and from my bandmates who also have their own solo projects. I think both experiences are vital in getting to know yourself as a musician.

Adriana-skeiky-59
(photo by Farrah Skeiky)

4) I’d like to hear your perspective on DC’s underground music and arts community. As a woman of color and member of the LGBTQ community, what has your experience been like so far?

Adriana: That’s a loaded question! I’m hesitant to call our community underground – we’re definitely well above the ground at this point!

I’m happy with the growth I’ve had in this community and inspired by my peers to push on and continue to make music that speaks to ourselves and others. And I’m excited about the future!

5) Now that 2020 is behind us and 2021 is here, is there anything that makes you feel hopeful?

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide to not be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou

Adriana: To me, hope is in another day, with new choices to make to continue moving forward to learn grow and experience life. As people who know me well know, I’m driven by the things I aspire to achieve, and even when things seem their darkest, I can look back on where I came from and what struggles I had to rise from. Soon those dark moments will also become a memory to refer back to during the next challenge. Hope is innate, it always will be there, even if it’s a little hard to see sometimes. 

Catch Adriana’s performance at 10pm EST on the Friday, Jan. 8th Livestream edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE (e-mail Rick for more details: rick.taylor0710@gmail.com)!

Listen to and purchase her solo music on Bandcamp here and with Mock Identity here. You can also follow Adriana on Instagram and Twitter, “Like” her on Facebook.

January(2)

5 Questions: Tristan Welch

The title of DC musician Tristan Welch’s new album, “Ambient Distress,” might lead you to believe the sounds contained within are barely noticeable. After all, ambient music is often characterized as sonic wallpaper that creates an interesting ambiance but is easy to ignore. One listen to “Ambient Distress,” however, and it’s clear that Welch has very different intentions.

Digitized with Negative Lab Pro v2.1.2

Photo by Cameron Whiteman

First and foremost, this is music designed to be front and center. Welch wields reverb-drenched drones and cycling patterns of ethereal textures like an expert marksman.

I can’t help but think of German electronic experimentalists Cluster when I listen to the pulsating tones of opening track “Employment Frustration,” or the repetitive patterns in “Family Stress,” only these wonderfully strange sonic vistas derive not from a keyboard, but from Welch’s guitar.

Equally noteworthy is just how strikingly accessible and engaging this record is. Each track strikes with force and has its own beguiling personality. “Ambient Distress” is the kind of album that could serve as the ultimate “gateway drug” for “normals” to fall in love with the wider world of experimental music.

With Tristan Welch scheduled to perform a special livestream show via Zoom for WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about his journey as a musician, how he comes up with his sounds and the relationship between the issues he cares deeply about and the music he makes. Read on!

1) Can you tell us a little about your journey as an artist? Did you always set out to make instrumental music that explores different tones and textures?

Tristan: Sure! My journey is simple really… I’ve played in various bands/full groups – but nothing substantial. It’s hard to find people you can actually click with and create a structure to practice with peoples jobs and stuff so I’ve always found myself alone over the years. Honestly, that fits my personality; I’m kind of a loner for the most part. Instrumental music has always spoken to me. I actually find more feeling and emotion with sound that I do words. I enjoy poetry and song lyrics but I listen to mostly instrumental music and I’m not very vocal in my everyday life – so it suits me. Music is about expression and while not everything I make sounds exactly like the title I may have given it – the title will give an idea of where the sound is coming from. It’s like an abstract painting for me. Musical portraits in a sense. 

2) What are some of your go-to sound sources? Would it be accurate to say most of the sounds on “Ambient Distress” are manipulated guitar?

Tristan: Everything on “Ambient Distress” is sourced from an electric guitar. I use a variety of electronics but I do my best to create from a standpoint of performance to make sure I can repeat certain things. So instead of going crazy with computer plugins and other things I like using actual pedals and loopers. It’s funny though… I’ve sent this record to various publications for review or whatever – most of the responses have been “we enjoy more guitar focused tunes.” I’ve battled and battled over the years trying to find pedals that create the sounds I hear in my head… this is just a recording of the process really; I’m still not quite there.

PSX_20200712_121417

3) One of the most striking things about “Ambient Distress” is how engaging and accessible it is. The new record utilizes a wide array of textures and sounds, with each track leaving its own mark. The tracks are almost pop-music length.  What led you to take this approach? When you were making this album, did it occur to you that this could potentially connect with “proletariat” listeners, and not just experimental avant-garde music elites?” 😉

Tristan: I appreciate that you find it engaging! Accessibility is something I do think about. A reason I put my music on streaming services is for accessibility. I know a lot of people who enjoy music and are open to new ideas but are not going on Bandcamp, Soundcloud or even visiting various blogs to find out about stuff… so I like to know it’s there for anybody to find. The shorter song lengths are influenced by pop music. Although I listen to a lot of instrumental music – my next most listened to style of music is hip hop and I enjoy that the production is repetitive but in digestible pieces. I also think about how people live their lives… it’s a privilege to take in a 30 minute masterpiece. If you are anything like me and struggling to find 15 minutes to eat then maybe this will be more suited for you. You don’t have to be privileged to enjoy the avant garde! I guess in line with this concept is why I love graffiti so much – it’s art for the masses. It’s not in a gallery. I like things to be kind of easy. I hate working.

PSX_20200921_102501Photo: Stephen Palke

4) Speaking of the proletariat, I can’t help but think of the iconic slogan “The personal is political” with your work. The new album features track titles like “employment frustration,” “family stress” and “environmental anger.” How do you see the relationship between the music you make and the issues you care about? Is your music primarily a means of catharsis from these stresses?

Tristan: Music is pure catharsis for me. I think that’s why sometimes things don’t necessarily sound like my images I’ll portray with words. If I name the song ‘Environmental Anger’ – I’m not exactly trying to sound like that but I’m trying to deal with it. At one point in time I had the audacity to think I could kind of put some views out into the world with music… but I’ve started to just think that if I just share my experience through the sound and the little glimpses of a troubled world then the point will be made. It’s going to be more how I approach things that will matter. It’s more of sharing the struggle. While I sometimes will do things that are more related to the abstract or focused on other areas… I’ll always have a soft spot for art centered on real social / political experiences… even if it is vague. I’m from the D.C. area and grew up on punk. It’s in my blood. 

DSC_7665
Photo by Cameron Whiteman

5) 2020 has been a harrowing year for obvious reasons. When you think about the year to come, and what may lie ahead for you personally and our society, what gives you hope?

Tristan: What lies ahead of me personally is another record. Maybe more. With society? I don’t know… In my 9-5 I work at a funeral home. I deal with every walk of life. I find that most people have a decent heart even if maybe we disagree on so much stuff. I hope that maybe that can bleed into the world politically. I know most people are just trying to do the best they can with what they are given. When I remember that I’m able to forgive the asshole on the road or in the store. We all have bad days… sometimes they just last a lifetime. That gives me hope? 

Listen to and purchase Tristan Welch’s new album “Ambient Distress” via Bandcamp; follow him on Instagram and Twitter; and ‘Like’ him on Facebook.

Catch Tristan’s special live show at the Dec. 4, 2020 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE. To register for this event, e-mail Rick Taylor: rick.taylor0710@gmail.com

December2020

5 Questions: Janel and Anthony

Janel and AnthonyPhoto: Maria Louciero

The names Janel & Anthony have long been synonymous with DC’s fertile experimental music scene, but the duo are anything but easy to pigeonhole. As a duo and as individuals, Janel & Anthony’s musical contributions encompass a vast spectrum of sounds, styles and tones — “experimental” is just the tip of the elegantly odd-shaped iceberg.

Whether it’s Janel’s exquisite cello (her primary instrument), or her viola, bass or pedal steel playing, or Anthony’s seemingly endless iterations of guitar, the one unifying thread that ties all their sounds together is an unmistakable thrill of risk-taking. Such is the quality of their performances that the duo has played the Kennedy Center.

While Janel & Anthony have been prolific as individual musicians, it’s been a while since the duo have released an album together, but a new record is on the way, and this one is extra special — it’s the first one featuring vocals from Janel on every track. I can’t wait to hear it!

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long for our next Janel & Anthony fix. The duo recently collaborated with the Black Cat in DC to record a special improv performance for WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE. The performance will be shared via a livestream event on Zoom on Friday, Nov. 6th at 10pm.

To mark the occasion, I got in touch with Janel and Anthony via e-mail to ask them about what’s happening in their world, and how their connection to music and creativity is helping them survive a scary and uncertain time. Read on!

1) How are you both doing these days? Has the pandemic — and the election — affected your creativity?

Anthony: Well, as you know, this is a very challenging time and it’s extremely depressing to read what’s happening in the news. Given the state of the world, I feel beyond lucky that I have music in my life. All I ever want to do is sit in my room and develop ideas on my guitar. And with all of this extra time that’s what I’ve been doing. During the pandemic I was also able to wrap up and complete 4 four records and wrote/recorded two new ones.  I’ve released Six Six which is a improvising duo I have with Luke Stewart on Atlantic Rhythms, a trio recording called Pocket Poem with Michael Formanek and Ches Smith on Cuneiform Records, a 30 person ensemble rendition of Terry Riley’s In C on Sonic Mass Records and my earliest documented compositions are compiled on a record called Ignorant American which is also available on Sonic  Mass Records.  I recorded but have yet to release a “harsh” solo guitar record called tm and a solo guitar record with overdubs called In Side. These two records should be out next year. Janel and Anthony are also set to release our third record next year.  So, even though this time is very stressful and depressing I’ve been working hard to remain focused on moving forward.

Janel: It is a terrible time. I feel for so many musicians who can’t play shows or missed recording projects they cared for. Everyone is just trying to hold on. Personally, I have been balancing my time between releasing some of the catalog of my live shows and writing new music. In June, Ideologic Organ (Paris) and Editons Mego (Vienna) labels released a live album of my arrangements of pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn’s music which I was honored to curate the group for. It’s called The Heart Sutra which is out now on bandcamp digitally and will be pressed to LP via those labels this Winter. 

Another release I put out this Spring is again with long time friends pedal steel player Susan Alcorn and vocalist Meghan Habibzai on the Atlantic Rhythms label (DC). I call this collection Sister Mirror which is available digitally and on tape via bandcamp. Sister Mirror includes a recording of Villa-Lobos’s piece for cello orchestra and soprano, Bachianas Brasilieres No. 5, Aria. We recorded it at The Brink with Mike Reina a long time ago. It was a marathon recording all of the cello parts. We had performed it at Meghan’s senior recital with a live cello orchestra of which I was the lead cellist.

Side B of Sister Mirror is an early recording of Susan Alcorn and I playing live at the venue/church in Baltimore called 2640. You can hear birds singing in the rafters which is appropriate because at the end we played a piece called “O Sacrum Convivium!” by Messiaen, a composer who transcribed bird song. We had been playing in her music studio a lot and were looking at our favorite classical pieces as well as each others compositions. I got to know her work in this way and we played in other groups she organized until she asked me to arrange her work for her Issue Project Room residence as heard on The Heart Sutra. In this way, this has been a time of summing up.

2) One of the things I enjoy most about your music is the sense of adventure. Your music as a duo explores so many different sounds, styles and tones, as does your work in other projects. It feels like you can go almost anywhere.  Would it be fair to say you both share a certain creative restlessness?

Anthony: I’d say that’s fair. For me it doesn’t really feel like I have a choice.  I have to work on music. I need it. I get very down if I’m not able to work on musical things that are interesting to me at the moment. I know that we both love all types of music/sound and yes, playing music with Janel has always felt very adventurous. I think a lot of that has to do with our love of free improvisation. We’ve always freely improvised between our compositions in the live setting and that really helps to keep things fresh.  We’ve rarely done sets of fully improvised material which makes this performance that you’re about to show very exciting for me. We just showed up and played what we felt. Improvised situations have been some of the most rewarding musical experiences for me over the years.

Janel: I don’t like to get too comfortable. It’s death to me in a way. I think a lot of artists feel this way but I like having a broad knowledge base musically speaking. It makes me more flexible. I also really enjoy a challenge. Honestly, being versatile has been the only way I could continue making music. I am interested in playing multiple instruments so I have access to that ability when it’s called for when I’m in the studio with Anthony or solo or with any band I’ve worked with.

I credit musician, engineer, producer Mike Reina for that because he first allowed and encouraged me to try different instruments when we were working on my first solo album, Mellow Diamond and my second solo record, Songs for Voice and Mellotron at The Brink. Also, I have suffered from tendinitis for decades and can only play an instrument for so long without developing inflammation and pain in my arms. It developed in college when I was over practicing, something like 8 hours a day, and I became debilitated. I was unable to play the cello, open doors, write or type, or even wash dishes etc. for about a year. Regardless, being able to play a viola or bass or a pedal steel simply helps me continue creating bc each one uses a different set of muscle groups and is held in a different position. That’s how I continue to work in music even though I’ve had this physical problem for so long. For me, being versatile has been the key to survival I’m not sure I could do another job. I am a terrible employee.

3) You’ve been making music together for years. It must seem intuitive at this point. How has your process evolved over time?

Anthony: It’s always felt almost telepathic when Janel and I perform together.  We don’t even have to look at each other and we know that something is about to shift or change.  There is no way for me to explain.  In this performance you can see it at the end of this set.  We turn off our loops at exactly the same moment without any cues.  That’s what it is. 

Janel: As Janel and Anthony we’ve worked intensively for years of recording and playing shows which served as a laboratory for us, musically. When we started working with Mike Reina at The Brink we took our time to get our second album right. We’ve done a record at home before (LP Cricket Cemetery Fifth Anniversary Rerelease) but we of course prefer working with him. Generally we bring our song ideas together and play them for each other and then the other person contributes something and we build it jumping off of one another’s ideas which is a lot of fun. We haven’t had a lot of energy for much duo writing for the past few years because we’ve been so busy but it’s been good to take a break. We started writing our third album in 2012 and have been working on it through the finishing touches in 2018. Since then it’s been sitting on the shelf because we just couldn’t let go of it. Watch for it next Fall on Cuneiform Records.

4) Are there any sonic avenues you have yet to explore that you would like to? A slightly related question – might there be a possibility of newly recorded Janel & Anthony music in the near future?

Janel: We have been sitting on a mainly vocal record for several years. As I said, we have a hard time letting go of records. We recorded Where is Home at two different studios before making The Brink home. We’ve always had a backlog of music because we are partners in music and in life and we’d rather hang out when we’re together than work. That’s changing though we’ve been taking some time for an artist in residency for a few months and we are really excited to try some new paths as a duo.

Anthony: Like I said earlier we have a third record coming out next year.  It’s very exciting for me because Janel is singing on every track.  I love the new music and I can’t wait for people to hear it!  

5) These are dark and scary times for a multitude of reasons. When you look at the state of the world, is there anything that gives you hope?

Janel: We were just talking about this today. We feel honored to have worked in a scene with an audience of very deep listeners and thinkers. That is ultimately where we feel hope and where we feel the most free. The experimental music and free jazz communities in D.C. have meant everything to us.  We got to know ourselves as artists at places like Pyramid Atlantic where Sonic Circuits used to put on shows, Bobby Hill’s series Transparent Productions was centered at Bohemian Caverns, Luke Stewart’s work with Capital Bop and at Union Arts and I did a residency at Twins and we played who knows how many shows there. We love the welcoming nature of these groups of people who just want to listen and be taken somewhere for a while and they don’t shy from being challenged sonically. It’s refreshing to call on your bodies instincts to play creatively and with abandon. That personally brings me joy and I hope you’ll enjoy this Janel and Anthony set of purely improvised music. Thanks to you and to the Black Cat for having us!

Check out their website here, the duo’s Kennedy Center page here, & Anthony’s Bandcamp here, and the Cuneiform Records Bandcamp here.

And be sure to watch their special performance for the Nov. 6th WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE Livestream on Zoom!

November2020