WFMU (Beware of the Blog 11.19.08)
by Daniel Blumin
With Thanksgiving fast approaching, many are going to want to do some fortifying before embarking on "the journey home". Some may turn to drink, whilst others may consider more sensible pursuits, such as catching up with recent live sessions in the bountiful archives of WFMU. Of course, those choices are not mutually exclusive, but if one just absolutely had to choose, I'd heartily recommend the latter. Here's one perfectly dapper reason: a few weeks ago, Steven R. Smith, best known for his work in Mirza, Thuja and solo as Hala Strana, recorded a corker of a solo session for my show at his Worstward Studios in L.A.
Smith has been affiliated with San Francisco's Jewelled Antler collective since its inception in the mid 90's. More recently, he has been recording solo as Ulaan Khol and under his own name. Smith has released haunting re-imaginings of Eastern and Central European folk music and experimental psych excursions for a wide array of labels such as Emperor Jones, Digitalis Industries, Important and Soft Abuse. Though parallels can be seen in the work of Alastair Galbraith, Flying Saucer Attack, and Popol Vuh, Smith is brewing up his own brand of hazy, big-sky worthy rumble. The session tracks were recorded to a 4-track cassette without any overdubs or post-production. Smith played a couple of electric guitars and a spike fiddle and used loops of an organ, a hurdy gurdy, and a piano to glue it all together. The live recording begins with overdriven guitar and drifts and coils along slowly evoking a ghost town in the American West where the desolation itself is the badass hero. Beautiful!
Whatís more, you can read on for my interview with Steven where we talk about the WFMU session, Jewelled Antler, instrument building, forthcoming releases, and sundry other topics for those young and old who need a little pick-me-up before plunging headlong into the abyss of distant cousins, Uncle Frank's inappropriate innuendo, and gluttony. Godspeed!
Steven R. Smith interview:
Daniel Blumin: The live set is comprised of four tracks. How much of the set did you plan out ahead of time?
Steven R.Smith: Most of it was improvised on the spot, but I did have a couple loops to help out with the transitions between songs so I could change instruments and have sound keep going. And I had planned to start with that first track, which is on the first Ulaan Khol record, so that song I already knew ahead of time, but I think everything else aside from the two or three loops was improvised. The main thing I had to remember was what key the loops were in and to try and improvise in those keys so that the loops would fit in nicely when I faded them in. There are four distinct songs and each is in a different key and tries to do different things. It's not really one big 35 minute piece. I tried to do a different type of thing or feel with each song. It was sort of done in parts, but in my head it wasn't so much "I'll play this riff or this song" but more like "I'll do the Ulaan Khol track to start with and then maybe try a quiet thing and then maybe a slide guitar thing and then maybe end with some big noise swells" - more concept ideas rather than preconceived riffs. Lately, that's how I've been approaching my records as well.
D: Mostly improvising?
S: For both solo and Ulaan Khol stuff, I usually have no idea what I'll play except maybe a key to play in and some vague idea of what I might try, and then I keep whatever works and forget about the failed attempts. Hala Strana is different though, and because I was doing a lot of traditional tunes from Eastern Europe, there was certainly more arranging and learning melodies, so that's a different way of working.
D: There is a cinematic feel to the four tracks with a shift in sound and mood as the set progresses. Have you done soundtrack work? Part III especially reminded me of Paris, Texas.
S: I'm a fan of soundtracks and, of course, the Paris, Texas soundtrack is very nice. I wish I was asked more often to do soundtrack work, but I've only done some small things for a friend of mine's short films and had some tracks from my earlier records on a British documentary about Tibet, which was cool. But I've never really been given the opportunity to really score something. I'd love to try.
D: In this recording as in all the recordings you've been associated with there's a lot of space and breathing room...
S: Space is key for sure. I like a lot of silence between notes, letting them resolve naturally or with the help of a little reverb. Instruments arenít just the instruments themselves but are also the room theyíre in and the player and magnetic particles on tape, etc. If anything, I see silence becoming even more important in some stuff I want to do down the line. But technically, (and this is probably boring stuff) I try to usually keep some distance between the mic and the amp or the acoustic instrumentÖI mean you donít listen to an electric guitar with your ear shoved against the amp, right? So why put the microphone right there? There needs to be a little breathing room and that helps, but itís also about how I play and I just tend to leave room between the notes. You ought to hear me at Guitar Center when Iím trying out a new guitar or something, everyone around me is playing these Eddie Van Halen speed riffs and Iím just plodding along slowly like Iím about to nod offÖ
D: Speaking of Guitar Center aces, are you self-taught?
S: Pretty much self-taught. I took some guitar lessons for about a year or so when I was in junior high. Mostly, I was just always in a band and thatís the best way to learn. And whenever the drummer would get up to take a leak, Iíd always run over and bash away on the drums and eventually kind of got a handle on those. The other instruments that show up on my records I can only do pretty simple things on them, but usually thatís all thatís needed ójust some added melodies or texture.
D: You record in your own studio and build many instruments. How does that play into what you set out to do? It seems that making things yourself, designing sleeves, etc. is about connecting to a "public" in a time when downloads with little identity are becoming more prevalent.
S: Definitely. Having my hand in as much as possible or collaborating with others on all these things like the music, the art, the packaging, etc. is what makes it fun for me. And it is a way of trying to personalize or humanize an art form that is getting increasingly more and more of just this formless product you can download. Now, Iím fine with downloading and for people having their whole music experience stuck in a little iPod with their earbuds, but thatís not how I like to ideally enjoy music. I like LPs, I like liner notes and big artwork, and I like to think that someone actually made the music and art and all of that with some blood and sweat. And when you have something that was done by hand, thatís very cool. Zoviet France might be where it started for me. I was just so impressed when Iíd see those early records of theirs with the unusual packagingóthe screen printed burlap wrap, or the Russian army felt and pin, and so onÖ I just thought that was so cool. Not to make more out of it than what it is, but itís nice when you have something that a person made with their own hands. As far as building instruments goes, most of that was because of lack of funds to buy an instrument such as the hurdy gurdy, which is quite expensive, or else it was to get some sound I was hearing in my head, which I couldnít find elsewhere. Only a couple of the instruments Iíve built look really nice; most of them are totally butchered-looking and primitive, but thatís cool too. Itís just all part of making music for meÖ You got to find or make the sources. And I was always impressed with Harry Partchís instruments and groups like Einsturzende Neubauten and also seeing pictures of the Art Ensemble of Chicago with their stage full of noisemakers big and smallÖ Those things are pretty inspiring.
D: Talk about the other members of Jewelled Antler - what was the formation of the collective inspired by? Certainly the stuff I was listening to was not conducive to the notion of a "collective" back in the late 80's!
S: Oh, Iíve known some of those guys (Glenn Donaldson, Rob Reger) since we were in junior high and high school. I had been in punk bands and stuff with Glenn since probably my freshman year in high school all the way through college bands and then into the San Francisco days of Mirza and Thuja and so onÖ We go way back. We never thought of it as a collective. I think we were tired of being in a ďbandĒ where everyone had defined roles and you went to practice every Thursday night. We got tired of that and things just loosened up a bit and we had more of an open door policy. And instead of things getting flaky and falling apart, which could easily happen by loosening up the structure like that, you know--you loosen up too much and people just sort of drift off or never show up-- but what actually happened was the opposite and all these various groups and things came out of it. But yeah, I know what you mean that the music we grew up with in the 80ís and stuff never really fit into a mold like that except maybe something like Crass or maybe PiL who kind of had that mentality for awhile with members who didnít even play but were part of the communal group. But yeah, that seems to be a very late 90ís/early 00ís kind of thing. Post modern, deconstructed, mash-up, multi-genre world we live in, eh? Sounds terrible when put that way!
D: Were you involved at all with the Jewelled Antler CD-R releases and the Jewelled Antler Library box set coming out this month on Porter?
S: As far as the Jewelled Antler record labelÖthat is Glenn and Loren Chasse and they were behind the monthly series that the box set will reissue. Various labels and people had talked about doing that reissue for years and then finally Porter Records came along and got that together. I look forward to seeing them. Supposed to be a very nice package.
D: Seems like every band going back to the early Jewelled Antler days has been formed with a very precise idea of what it would sound like. Was/Is that intentional? New bands = new approaches?
S: Definitely, I can only speak for the groups I've been in, but I think many of the other Jewelled Antler bands were created in a similar manner. Each project has/had a very defined aesthetic... The name, the vibe, and even the artwork in some instances were created before the music even got started. Almost like, "I have this great band name and an idea that the music should be like such and such, so let's get some instruments together and try and make this happen." The only one that hasn't had a definite idea behind it would be my solo stuff under my own name because that's mostly been stuff I've done where I didn't really have an umbrella, so to speak, to put it under so I just put it out under my own name.
D: So there are ideas that simply wouldn't work for Ulaan Khol, say, and you keep them in your noggin till you record solo?
S: Yeah, well I tend to work on one thing at a time; it's not like I have my hands in 5 different things at once. That just gets me confused, so I tend to start something with a definite idea that "this is going to be the next Ulaan Khol record" and don't even pursue roads that don't seem relevant. I'd just maybe write the idea down in my notebook and come back to it later for something else.
D: When you were growing up, did you gravitate to bands with a sound, a design, and a concept? And I ain't only talkin' about Duran Duran here!
S: Ah, you ain't gonna pin Duran Duran on me although I owned Rio as you probably did too....
D: What do you mean 'did'? You just don't part ways with a classic like that, but pray go onÖ
S: Well, it wasn't like a prerequisite with me that a band had to have a look and an aesthetic, but it's always nice when they do. Like how Zoviet France's early records were always these crazy special handmade things, or Keiji Haino's records are almost always black on black, or going back earlier, you know even the Smiths' records always had that look to them, or the Factory records releases, or how the Birthday Party just looked like a crazy gang with these almost cartoon characters as band members. That stuff makes it fun to be a music fan, but I'd hate for that to overshadow the music, which is really the main thing.
D: Was there music around the house when you were growing up?
S: Iím the odd one out in the family as far as music goes. My mom plays a bit of piano and we had a piano in the home growing up, but I was the only one obsessed with this stuff. And my parentís record collection was pretty minimal. I had to use the resources of my friendís older brother to get hip to a lot of stuff back then.
D: What attracts you to the Eastern European folk tradition that inspires Hala Strana? Do you listen to much blues - is there a link to your work there?
S: I donít listen to much blues aside from Howlin Wolf, Son House and even then itís rarely. Itís just not something Iím in the mood for very often. But my introduction to traditional music of Eastern and Central Europe actually came from a Dog Faced Hermans gig sometime back in 1993 or '94. They were playing a song and the guitar player had wandered off stage and came back with an electric viola and without missing a beat the band just ramped right into a fast Romanian folk tune. Totally crazy and unexpected for me because I wasnít all that familiar with Dog Faced Hermans at that point. A really great gig! Anyway, from there I found the Ex record with Tom Cora where they do a Muzsikas tune and then of course my buddy Glenn picked up a Muzsikas CD and we started getting more and more immersed into this. When I visited Prague around that same time, I saw a little trio playing traditional folk music rather primitively (in a good way) on the bridge there and it was really cool. I donít know why I connect with it so much. It just resonated with me right from the start. It was like I had been searching for music like that but didnít know where to find it until I saw that Dog Faced Hermans gig. Before then I was only like 22 or 23 years old and coming out of punk and post-punk stuff, maybe starting to explore free jazz a bit but hadnít really broadened the musical horizons all that much so it was just like a door had opened for me.
D: Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with?
S: Oh, I donít really know. I would have loved to have gotten some players from Romania or Hungary to play on some of the Hala Strana stuff. That could have been very cool. Maybe some dayÖ
D: How did the Ulaan Khol project come about?
S: The Ulaan Khol thing was mostly a way to blow off steam after my son was born 2 years ago. It was as simple as that. It's nice to play loud and rock out a bit, which I hadn't done since Mirza really, so it was just a fun way to go. Mostly, I'm a guitarist and I had been doing more subtle, quieter things or more folk things at that time and just wanted to play a little more aggressively, although I don't consider Ulaan Khol aggressive, but you know, turn it up louder and use the fuzz pedals, and so on. Probably an early mid-life crisis...
D: What can we expect on Ulaan Khol II due out in a couple of weeks? Any change in approach?
S: Ulaan Khol II was recorded right after UK I so itís a bit similar (as itís meant to because itís part of a series) but with UK I, I started out with fuzz guitar and then layered the organs and all the rest on top. For UK II, I started with fuzz organ and then layered the guitars on top of that, so UK II is a bit more organ-laced and a bit darker because of it.
D: What else is happening in terms of recordings?
S: The only things I have on the table right now are to finish up the Ulaan Khol Ceremony series, which will be three parts in total (Iím finishing up III right now), and Iím working on a solo thing right now as well. Also, I collaborated with a Dutch bass clarinetist named Gareth Davis earlier this year, and that came out really well. It should come out on LP in the early part of next year, and we are planning to get together at some point and do some more recording, too.
D: This session's a real treat since I don't believe you play live solo at allÖ Any plans in the future?
S: I've done a few (three or four?) solo things for radio similar to this one over the years, but no solo shows in a club or anything. Some of the groups I play with have played live. Mirza played shows quite a lot, and Thuja plays live when we can all get together, and I've sat in with some friend's groups over the years, but no, I haven't really felt inspired to take the solo thing out yet. When you're with a group, you can sort of cover for each other if one is having an off night or just has technical problems... But when you're on your own up there, it's a bit more risky. I guess I haven't felt up for it, but I do think about it from time to time and it could happen... I really admire people who do go up there solo and improvise. It's a gutsy thing to do.
D: Finally, how has your relationship/approach to making music changed over the years?
S: I think it's still essentially the same it's always been - just an obsessive pursuit to see what I can do, or what would happen if I tried this idea, or if the group of us tried this type of thing. It's always been about exploring the possibilities and it's still exciting to do this. Obviously, I operate in total obscurity so there isn't any huge amounts of money riding on what I do, no big record label forcing me to do something I don't want to do, no real pressure except what I choose to put on myself so I consider myself very lucky that I've been able to make some records. When I was in my first band way back in 8th grade, that's all I wanted to do was to make a record, so it's good to remember that from time to time.
D: Ok, that's a wrap, Steven. Thanks again for recording the set and for taking the time to chat! Good luck with the Ulaan Khol release.
S: Thanks so much for having me on the showÖ