Too Cool To Die March 2010
Ulaan Khol is the work of Steven R Smith, who is at present serenading and terrorising the internets with the Ulaan Khol project for Soft Abuse. With the release of III (out now on Soft Abuse) Smith participates in what can only be described as a full-fledged basement creep guitar work, cinematic in scope, bizarrely good in effort, and has been on repeated plays at toocooltodie.com for weeks now. Ulaan Khol's work will redefine you and switch up molecules. Heavy goodness. We got in Smith to discuss influences and manifestos in this week's Questions of Doom!
What are the secret origins of Steven R Smith?
No secret there, just been playing music for years and releasing records for some of that time, first in San Francisco and more recently in Los Angeles. Iíve been in a few various bands and projectsóMirza, Thuja, Hala Strana, as well as releasing stuff under my own name as well.
You've released many albums - what so far do you think has been the defining narrative through out your work?
Well, my guitar playing I suppose would be the main thing. I think something that gets brought up a lot with my stuff is a sort of tension between opposites, where there are sort of noisier and uglier sounds coupled with prettier, less harsh tones; as well as improvised vs. composed, light vs. dark. So as far as vibe goes, all the stuff Iíve been involved in seems to deal with those contradictions, or trying to reconcile those differences.
The name of Ulaan Khol is intriguing, what does it mean and how do you think the name underlines the music?
The name is pretty meaningless, it's actually misspelled but is based on the name of a small area in the Republic of Kalmykia in the Caucasus region near the Caspian Sea. I just liked the name really, and I changed the spelling a bit just so that there wouldn't really be a direct connection to that region, spare them any humiliation my music might bring upon them. Also, Chicago and Kansas have already been taken.
The forthcoming III album is the final statement of the trilogy and very powerful, what are you trying to say with the end statement?
I was just trying to tie them all up together with this one. I did all of them right after each other over the course of about 9 or 10 months, back in like 2007 or something. Each record was done in order, well, not the individual songs but each record. So I did #1 first and then II and III. So by the time III came around I had to start tying up some loose ends. I knew I wanted to end with a big long jam and I wanted it, on the whole, to be more rocking. II was sort of the more funeral dirge-ish of them all so I figured by III things better start picking back up. The artwork sort of correlates to this more than I can articulate it. I think the colors on each cover really sum up what each one sounds like. #1 is sort of that late afternoon glow at dusk, II is pretty dark and III is a bit brighter, like a sort of morning.
Was the Ulaan Khol concept always thought out as a trilogy, and if so, why in threes?
When I was first thinking about it, doing three was just what seemed manageable to actually sustain a common thread through it all and I like that it was sort of a ridiculous idea in this era of MP3s and infinite shuffle. Thereís not much context for songs anymore, they just sort of float around by themselves in the ether waiting for a hard drive to go to. So having this bulk of a release that all sort of goes together was appealing. I like stuff like that, as pretentious as a ďtrilogyĒ might sound to some people. Iím lucky Soft Abuse was up for doing all of it. At first it looked like I was going to have to spread each one around to a different label, but Chris at Soft Abuse was really cool about it and was game to tackle the whole thing.
There will be more Ulaan Khol releases, they just wonít be connected to this Ceremony series. Itís not like there is just this trilogy thing and thatís it. I mean, maybe I should stop while Iím ahead, but Iíve already put some other stuff on tape so there will be things, hopefully moving in some different directions. Weíll see.
One of the reasons I keep coming back to your album is the definite sense of cinema through out the album, do soundtracks and films influence your writing? If so, which ones?
Very much so. Books too. I think an obvious one would be Popol Vuh and the music they made for Herzogís films. I love Lech Jankowski who worked with the Bros. Quay. The fellow that does some soundtrack work for Bela Tarrís films, his name is Mihaly Vig, very good stuff.
What I love, as well, about Ulaan Khol is the raw edge you bring to it, are you influenced by Greg Ginn? Or hardcore music?
Yeah, hardcore music was pretty important to me and my friends growing up in high school, so for me that was like the mid-late 80ís. Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat and then the more melodic end of thatóAdolescents, early Social Distortion, Agent Orange etc. óI grew up in Fullerton, California so we had some of those groups right here in town, they were local legends to us kids. Greg Ginnís awesome, no doubt. I think the stuff that really got to me was more post-punk stuff though, the Birthday Party (and all of their off-shoots like Crime and the City Solution) was a huge influence on me, Rowland S. Howard particularly, and stuff like the Fall, the Pop Group. Shit, I could just go on and on but as far as Ulaan Khol goes, I always sort of just saw it as a psych thing, like Popol Vuh meets Les Rallizes Denudes or something along those lines. You mentioned Neil Young earlier, you could throw him in there too! Itís a jumble.
I hear a terrific amount of anxiety and tension in the music. And I would love to see it played out live, but I read that you have no plans to tour this project? Why not?
Iím lazy and donít really want to try and put a band together to do it. Since Iíve moved to Los Angeles which was like in 2000 or something, I donít really hang out with musicians here. Iím pretty removed from the music scene in general and down here Iím particularly removed from it. I mean I do know a few people that play and are in bands but really if I wanted to put a group together here in this town, Iíd have to basically place an ad in the weekly or something. And I donít know if youíre a musician or have ever tried to do that, but Iíve done that many times throughout my life in all the various groups Iíve played with and all I can say is trying out musicians that have answered the advert is about the most miserable thing I could think to do. Itís awful. You could do a documentary on the whole process and itíd be fascinating. Especially in Los Angeles, jesus thereís a lot of idiots here! So Iím just not going to go through that process anytime soon. Plus, Iíve sort of tired of the live thing. Many of the groups Iíve been in played live and Iíve just sort of gotten that out of my system, at least right nowÖmaybe some day. I admit though, that out of all the music Iíve done, along with the Mirza stuff, Ulaan Khol would be well suited to the live thing.
What has been the greatest misconception of Ulaan Khol?
That the name Ulaan Khol refers to a person. I mean, itís perfectly fine if people think that, thatís totally cool with me, itís more interesting than ďSteve SmithĒ. But I always think itís funny when itís referred to as if itís a person. I mean, it makes sense because itís just me, so why wouldnít it be a personís name? So itís actually my own misconception of the name, not other peopleís. See I donít even know what Iím doing! I always thought of it like Zoviet France. Like the name of a mysterious project, but the obvious take on it is as if itís a person. So I guess Iím Ulaan Khol. Nice to meet you.
And what is the greatest secret?
An undisclosed brand of fuzz pedal.
What records should we be checking out?
Oneís on vinyl purchased from your local record store, if youíre fortunate enough to still have a record store near you.