Perfect Sound Forever. July/August 2003
" Wind in the Trees: The Jewelled Antler Collective "
By Jorge Luis Fernández
San Francisco will always hold a paramount place in rock history. For the mainstream and the old-fashioned listener, the city is synonymous with the Summer of Love. But under the ground laid a bunch of wild creatures like Blue Cheer, Fifty-Foot Hose, Mad River, and Sopwith Camel. Even Jefferson Airplane, stalwarts of the Flower Power movement, released the dark and overlooked masterpiece: After Bathing At Baxter's. And people like Robert Crumb, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or anarchic communalists the Diggers couldn't have happened in any other place but San Francisco.
In the 1970's, the city unleashed one of the weirdest tales in American music: The Residents, a band with no name and secret personalities which thrived in their own myth, and both by refraction and genuine talent influenced the whole alternative movement of the 1980's. Then came Chrome, with its sci-fi otherworldliness and raw Stooges-like agression. And of course, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, one of the most interesting groups of the 1990's, whose members usually embark on many side projects -including the fact that unofficial member Seymour Glass runs Banafish magazine. Activism, left-wing politics, communal living and creative imagery are still at work at the heart of the city. This fact is well represented nowadays by the Jewelled Antler Collective; and specially by their spokesperson Glenn Donaldson, who between his indefatigable task of CD-R burning, took time during March to attend anti-war marches.
Donaldson: "We are inspired by the great tradition in San Francisco for free-thought and experimentation with music. In the '70's and '80's there were some brilliant experimental/punk/psych/industrial groups like Chrome, Minimal Man and Factrix. Most of us moved to SF in the early '90's, so we came too late (or were too young anyway) to have experienced any of those bands. But we're fans of the music and art they left behind."
The Jewelled Antler Collective had its early roots in Mirza, an outfit shared by Donaldson and fellow musician Steven R. Smith circa 1993. Donaldson and Smith had been playing music since the late '80's in Southern California, and eventually ended up at the same college together in Northern California. There, they formed what would became Mirza, aterwards recorded three records, and played several shows until more people started to drop in.
Donaldson: "We played a bunch of shows, with groups like The Dirty 3 and Windy & Carl, got fucked up (we were in our early 20's) and had a great time. Steve & I were doing separate solo things, but we still liked the energy of the group ideal. We started playing with Rob Reger, a longtime friend of ours from So. Cal, and Loren Chasse, who randomly showed up at a party at my house wearing a MAGMA belt-buckle. Steve, Rob, Loren & I became Thuja after one afternoon session over ginger tea in Rob's warehouse in late '98."
The addition of Loren Chasse brought new creative levels to the collective. For instance, indifferent to the attention of record companies, they started to burn CD-R's and started to experiment with recording outdoors (the very essence of Chasse's solo works), and were very conscious to expand the boundaries of their music. So the Jewelled Antler was born. Much of the product released by Jewelled Antler is handmade. In particular, there's Jewelled Antler Library, which is a 12 volume series of 3 inches CD's to be realeased monthly. They come in beautiful packages, with drawings and collages by Glenn himself.
Donaldson: "A few years back Loren got a CD-burner and asked me if I wanted to collaborate with him on a CD-R label. We had our band Thuja, but both of us had all these ideas that didn't quite fit into the context of Thuja."
Chasse: "Glenn and I recorded a bunch of music as The Blithe Sons and didn't want to bother with trying to convince labels to release it. So we packaged this 'demo' the way we'd want to see it ultimately appear, complete with dried leaves beneath the tray, and came up with an imaginary label. The Jewelled Antler was originally used for a Thuja song, but the image really evokes a whole world for us. I suppose we could say the label still is quite 'imaginary'."
In last few months the alternative press gave more attention to the collective, puting emphasis on their various open-ended projects. But Thuja, the most known of them, is in itself a very different group from Ghost Plants -recorded between 2000/2001- to the more recent Suns (both CD's were released by the Emperor Jones label). While the former reflects their current interest in the development of atmospheres, and kick-starting an evocative, sensory reception -one could say, involvement- of the listener, the excellent Suns relates more to the open-ended improvisatory outfit AMM. With wide variations in timbre, dissonant performances on numerous percussive and stringed instruments, and strange frequencies in the background (whether they be a forest rain, a keyboard or simple noise), the musicians elaborate an alien and at times menacing territory.
Donaldson: "Thuja's music came about by accident. We never talked about how it should sound. Between the instruments we chose, the atmosphere in Rob's warehouse, and the quiet volume, somehow it became what it is."
The careful treatment of timbres and tones and the combination of conventional and unconventional instruments are integral to the flow of sound in Suns and Ghost Plants. Non-musical objects and recording locations also play a crucial role in Thuja, as well as The Blithe Sons, one of their most adventurous parallel projects. Besides guitar and synthesizers, there are harps, bells, battery powered keyboards, bell-blocks, and toy amplifiers interacting with birds, branches and gongs submerged in a creek. All this, of course, recorded with the resources of lo-fi technology. The results taste amazingly fine, oozing a unique sense of otherworldliness. Technically, they can be heard like a cross between formal improvisation and the less formal procedures of New Zelanders like Roy Montgomery, Alastair Galbraith, or Bruce Russell and the musicians centred around the Corpus Hermeticum label. And in the end, one can admit to Loren's very interesting hint that the environment has a more important input in the sound than the instruments themselves.
Donaldson: "One thing we do consciously is vary the instrumentation. We buy a ton of broken dulcimers and harps at flea markets and build strange percussion devices in order to find new sounds. Struggling with these instruments is a big part of our sound. Most musicians, I think, like to control the sounds their instruments are making. We do that too to some extent, but for us, using odd combinations of instruments, amplified objects and non-specific tunings, keeps the whole thing closer to the realm of unknowing. It's this element of chaos that pushes the music in new directions. We never know where a song's going to go."
Chasse: "Giving in to the conditions of an afternoon in a particular room or landscape, surrendering to a moment, helps to free the ear from how it's used to hearing. Instruments lose their boundaries. Often we have this experience of there having been 'other' players in the room because when listening to a recording we are not always able to identify or take responsibility for all the sounds that have been made."
The strong sonic presence of the ambience is also imbued in songs from the marvellous The Birdtree and their album Orchards & Caravans. Here - as in the best works of Roy Montgomery, Richard Youngs, Galaxie 500, and even TV Personalities - a static and ever menacing climate acts against the touching and melancholic melodies to enact a beautiful sense of drama. Each song is a beautiful cosmos which invites the listener to walk through unknown worlds, in the same way that most of Thuja's experimental tracks do. And in the process, Glenn Donaldson (for it's essentially a solo-project) created an unique postcard of his hinterland, a place where few 'so-called' post-rockers go. Along with The Knit Separates and The Skygreen Leopards, The Birdtree is the most song-based of the various Jewelled Antler projects. Anyway, one couldn't help but wonder why they bother with creating several groups instead of making all records under a sole name.
Donaldson: "I think all the folks that have contributed to Jewelled Antler love strange music and the outdoors. Most of us I would describe affectionately as amateur-musicians, but we have a lot of ideas. Having so many different projects is an excuse to make art, come up with band-names, song titles and lyrics. We're pretty much playing and recording in forests, parks, in abandoned storefronts, on the coast, and in our bedroom studios all the time, so Loren & I started making up different bands out of our tapes and collaborations."
Chasse: "None of this is premeditated. It all just happens... like weather. It's amazing how playing in the shadow of a rock with a particular breeze blowing and a waft from the nearby grasses will influence the outcome of a particular music-making event."
Along with their shared interest in spontaneity was an impulse to explore more song-oriented music. In 1996, Glenn and Jason Honea gave birth to the first of their numerous offshoots: The Knit Separates. And regarding The Skygreen Leopards, a new recruit for the JAC was Donovan Quinn, who met Glenn Donaldson in 2000 through an ad.
Of course, one thing that every one of their projects have in common are unconventional recording methods. As an alternative to expensive studios and even lo-fi port-a-studios, recording outdoors is the starting point for all of The Blithe Sons CD's. Recorded in a bunker and under a bridge at San Gregorio, We Walk The Young Earth (their third and last album), favors a close intimate listening. Complete with the bristling sounds of bells and metal objects, certain passages of the album recall the sparkles on Neil Young's "Will To Love," with a minimalist drone in the last tracks interacting with acoustic guitar, toy keyboards, dulcimer, harp, and sparse instrumentation. Unlike straight folk music, the pastoral cadences are stately suggested -rather than pronounced- like a breeze of fresh air. The drone gradually grows, and diminishes with ebbs and flows towards the end of the record. Donaldson sings in a quiet voice, ocasionally appearing like a guru or a magician. We Walk The Young Earth is a masterpiece for the senses. At times, the alluring atmosphere -where a lot of space allows anything to happen- conjures reminiscenses of Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic. Overall, it sounds like certain aspects of No Neck Blues Band, and -in a more luminous way- Richard Youngs circa Advent. The tag "pastoral meditations & minimalist folk hymns" which accompanies the CD cover fits perfectly into their music.
Donaldson: "When we record outdoors, the location has a sonic presence in the music, the wind, the acoustic space, the ever-present crows, the sound of the sea in the distance. But also, standing in the middle of a forest is a humbling experience. I'm awed by it; I think that influences the way I play."
Chasse: "In my solo recordings I have always regarded a particular space -including the objects and situations found there- as an instrument. I've found many subtle ways for playing a space, activating the materials there with a hand, moving things into a new relationship with one another, gently influencing sonic potentials to emerge."
Another interesting, almost hidden side of JAC's records are the sparse hints of Eastern European folk which percolates in much of their music. This is more pronouced in Steven R. Smith's new project Hala Strana which reinterprets traditional songs from Poland, Romania and Hungry, but it's also hinted at in The Blithe Sons' We Walk The Young Earth, which occasionally resembles the short-lived Polish group Atman. Donaldson is aware of some similarities. He is, in fact, a huge fan of folk music and speaks of releasing music by Polish-born avant-folk artist Dead Raven Choir.
The Jewelled Antler is the name of the collective, but it had it's origins as the prolific label through which they've released over a dozen CD-R's by The Skygreen Leopards, Steven R. Smith,The Franciscan Hobbies, Tomes, Hala Strana, Green Laughter, The Child Readers, Dead Raven Choir and The Blithe Sons. But their work is finding its way to other labels; We Walk The Young Earth was recently released by Family Vineyard, The Birdtree's Orchards & Caravans CD was re-issued by Last Visible Dog, and The Franciscan Hobbies Masks & Meanings CD is due out on Soft Abuse. Through their romantic notions, natural settings, unconventional recording, songwriting and instrumentation, and their ever expanding ideas (according with the invention of new names) The Jewelled Antler Collective has been injecting new music on the alternative scene, and continues to bring fresh air to the stale state of rock music. But, what about the true meaning of the 'Jewelled Antler'?
Chasse: "The name came up spontaneously one day, while Thuja was playing. It stuck around in our thoughts and appeared later on as a title for a song. This didn't quite seem to fulfill the potential of this image, and so when Glenn and I decided to begin a label there was the Jewelled Antler, waiting as the perfect mascot for our imagined musics."