The Broken Face. Issue No. 18; Winter 2003
by Lee Jackson
Steven R. Smith is one of the hardest working men in a non-paying business. I'm sure if he wanted to he could make big bucks as U2's younger, wilder 5th member, but instead he chooses to make a more artistic racket as a member of Thuja and on solo recordings under his own name and more recently Hala Strana. Since the mid '90s Smith has released a steady stream of moody instrumental albums under his own name that sound almost like a more folky early Labradford, centerd on his dynamic guitar and bow work. He was also a key member of the incredible San Francisco noise/improv group Mirza, whose Iron Compass Flux (Darla) remains a high-point in the genre, and more recently he continues to help re-chart the map of improvised psychedelia as a member of Thuja. He's also made contributions to recordings by the Knit Separates, as well as Glenn Donaldson's Bird- and Ivytree releases on the Jewelled Antler label. Inspired by his investigations into ethnic and world music, Smith's even started making his own instruments and incorporating them into his recordings, the most recent of which under the Hala Strana name offer some of the most hypnotic, soul-stiring avant folk music I've ever heard. Think the rawer side of early Velvet Underground, Alastair Galbraithe, Eastern Europe and ghosts. Rather than elaborate more deeply on his recordings, which are covered more thoroughly elsewhere and below, let's dive right in, shall we?
Tell me about the birth of Hala Strana and the concept behind it? This seems like a really exciting yet very natural progression for your work to take.
It really just spit out of all this traditional music from Eastern and Central Europe that I had been listening to. I had always kind of tried to reference this music a little bit in my solo music, but I hadn't ever really tried to explore it very deeply. So it was kind of an excuse to dig up some more records--I was really familiar with some of the more current groups playing this music like Muzsikas and Taraf de Haidouks, I had seen them play and had their records but then I started trying to trace it backwards, get the old Library of Congress and Smithsonian/Folkways recordings, the Arhoolie stuff, recordings from the 20's and 30's, Bartok's old field recordings and try and fit it all together. And it was all just really inspiring and I wanted to do something with it. From there it was just a matter of figuring out what it was I loved so much about them--the instrumentation, the melodies, it's particularly the ballads and laments that I've really responded to and going from there. Traditional music by its very nature is just so geared toward re-interpretations--that's really all they are anyway. No matter how far you go back you're just hearing somebody's own personal take on it, there's no definitive version anywhere and it varies from region to region--so it was a lot of fun and really loose, I certainly didn't get very hung up on playing this stuff "correctly"-- I wouldn't be able to anyway-- and half the time I would only learn a portion of a song which I was really drawn to and then build a song to go around it, or slam it into something else which was only half-finished. My only criteria was to try and surprise myself and keep it in what I considered to be tasteful and in the spirit of this original music. And with that mindset I also tried to put together some original songs that fit in with it all as well.
Did you notice any commonalities or differences in the songs of some countries? The Hungarian stuff seem a bit more somber and meditative than the rousing Albanian "Pogonoshite" for example. The Hungarian songs also sound influential on what you've been doing in your solo stuff.
I'm hardly an expert, but from what I've listened to and was able to dig up, on the surface there's a similarity in the instrumentation and the same scales kind of keep appearing (at least for the songs I was drawn too), but when you get in there you find a lot of unique aspects central to each country. It gets a little confusing too because you get these areas like Transylvania which don't necessarily stop at modern borders so it gets hard to separate or say that something is from a particular country. I tried my best with the liner note credits. There were some things that I don't really relate to either...I certainly picked and chose the songs I did--it's not very representative of each country or region. But you can definitely see how music has traveled and picked up and left influences wherever it goes. It would get too detailed to get into it, but I can tell you what I liked--there are some Croatian vocal pieces that are just heart-breaking, These Romanian village songs which I didn't cover because I'd just ruin them-they're just so intense and out-of-control, it's like a train wreck about to happen, you know? Yes, the Hungarian laments are just beautiful. That Albanian tune you mention, the original is so great and I found a bunch of different interpretations of that, it's really modern in a way, the way they do the whole opening sequence is something that we would kind of try and do in Mirza, the big droney rumble intro which at the time we were probably trying to channel Pharoah Sanders' Tauhid or something so it's all just a big circle really. I guess everybody is feeding off the same juice. I like that aspect of it. I suppose the drone is a big player in all this.
What instruments were used on Fielding?
I just have a lot of crap lying around, half-busted instruments, or some things I've built, and a bunch of ethnic instruments that keep accumulating around here. There's a bit of smoke and mirrors going on, I suppose. It's not too hard to make crummy instruments kind of fill in all the spots...sort of. And on Fielding (and to a lesser degree, the self-titled CD) I used a lot of tapes--tapes of myself, I had some of my friends that I play music with like Glenn and Loren send me tapes of them playing, there are field recordings I've made, and I even used some tapes of the traditional music itself. I just collaged a lot of it together using a hand-held tape recorder in real time, editing in things randomly to see how they blended.
One thing you find is that the further in time you go back with the recordings of these old songs the better they usually are because of the circumstances under which they were recorded. They were frequently recorded on pretty low-grade tape recorders and played by village musicians out in a barn or outside or something--totally rural conditions, and maybe the musician's been drinking, or it's a wedding, there's a noisy crowd gathered in a small room etc...they're totally loose and full of life, and because the ethnomusicologists or whatever you want to call them, the Alan Lomax types who were recording and compiling these would sometimes try and cram as many recordings on to a side of an LP as they could so there's all these arbitrary edits and cross fades...I love that, it makes for a really great listen. Purists get pretty up tight about those edits and stuff which is kind of funny but just as a listening experience it's great, it's like taking a train through one of these countries in the 40's with the window down and you hear all these sounds flying by, it's there for a short spell and then something else interferes and takes over, then a brass band comes barging in, then a wedding crowd passes by.....And with Fielding in particular, I was trying to capture that kind of vibe, kind of a small collage of history.
It doesn't sound like there's much in the way of processing on the actual instruments, but the instrumental blend, lo-tech mixing and recording lends the whole thing a slightly warped ghostly quality. Do you think it's your interpretation or more the source material that's so otherworldly while still being so human and accessible?
I suppose maybe a bit of both? I don't know. At least with those real early recordings anyway, to me, they're really out there, it's like listening to ghosts, so this music already has that possibility. But there are some pretty sterile versions of these old songs by academic groups that are recorded in some slick studio that just sound like shit to me, sounds like they're trying to get their thesis together or something. You got to avoid that. So it is possible to suck the life right out of these wonderful songs if you're not careful. And then like I said, I have pretty limited resources, I record at home on a reel-to-reel tape machine with cheap gear and that lends a certain color to it as well, and then I think the music I make whether it's solo or Hala Strana or when we get together as Thuja--the music just tends to drift and wander off. I'm probably not answering your question, I really don't know...I'm glad you think it's human and accessible and in that sense I'd like to think it's me, but I'd wager money that it's really just these old melodies and scales, the arrangements and instrumentation, the use of acoustic instruments, wood and wire, it's timeless.
Will it receive a proper reissue any time soon?
Yeah, I believe that we should see a re-issue of it in early to mid 2004 on Last Visible Dog.
How far back does your fascination with bows and ethnic instrumentation go? You're building your own stuff now?
Even back in Mirza we were trying to bring in other instruments, anything we could get our hands on and they've just kind of accumulated over time. I've always been interested in whatever else was being played in a song rather than the guitar/bass/drums standard. I always like the mentality of groups like the Incredible String Band, Art Ensemble of Chicago, some of the Pharoah Sanders Lps where he had a large group with him, Einsturzende Neubauten, Faust, whatever, groups and recordings with just a wide palette of sounds going on mixed in with more common instruments, Harry Partch is often brought up with this topic. From there it's pretty easy to just start making stuff yourself. I've been doing that with varying degrees of success for a long time now. At the moment I'm really into it cause I think the next recording I work on will consist of only instruments I've built from hand. So I got a ton of things that I'm trying to build right now--a fretted violin, a baritone bowed psaltery-thing, a hurdy-gurdy which has been combined with a dulcimer fret board, etc.
The self-titled Hala Strana on Emperor Jones sounds like it was recorded in more of a studio situation, but it's actually a less dense mix than on Fielding...How did the recording for the two albums differ?
Well, the Emperor Jones release was recorded quite a bit before Fielding and I was still kind of feeling my way around this stuff. I knew that I was trying to incorporate this folk music into all this, but it's very transitional. I mean, to me, some of it could very easily be a solo record, I understand that, but I was trying to get at something and I like how it came out, there's some growth there. One important thing was to get rid of the keyboards and most of the electric instruments. I think on the whole the only electric instruments on either record are a little electric guitar and then the optigan keyboard which is just a totally backwards organ that runs on these floppy discs which some red laser thing reads like a bar-code. They're from the early 70's and kind of a precursor to the Casio. Pretty low-budget and very inconsistent. So that was the vibe. And you're right about the sparseness, I was listening to the Band an awful lot at that time and so that rubbed off I think---just very natural and open, organic.
By the time I did Fielding I was just really humming with the possibilities, I learned a lot doing the first CD and so all those songs and ideas were coming out and I just threw everything into each song, just packed them with snippets of songs, and recordings, and I really liked how they sounded. I mean, it was fun, just throwing shit around. The hand-held tape recorder is really a great instrument and is probably responsible more than anything in why Fielding sounds like it does.
Back to your releases under your own name, they're usually more about you exploring the studio setting with layering and symphonic kinds of arrangements, but doused in a kind of ambient wash. Kohl is more stripped down and lo-fi though, and sounds like it was recorded live. Do you favor a particular mode of performance? I guess that just comes down to what's more fun for you, the studio or the stage? With a group like Mirza that would seem like a no-brainer, but with your more recent stuff, and even Thuja, where the sound environment plays a key role in the recording, it seems that you're really having fun putting it all together. But then Thuja is all recorded live...
Well, Mirza was certainly a "band" type deal and that's probably obvious, but what's funny is that it was with that group that we generally recorded in actual "real" studios--both Tim Green's studio and Kyle Statham's which was 16 track--for us, a total luxury. But we wised up to all that shit and figured that for what we do, and being improvisational, it's just totally unnecessary. You're just blowing money out the window, waiting for something to happen. And sometimes, it ain't happening. Thuja is the exact opposite and we'll record on just about anything at all and with the way we play, the environment is really crucial and plays a big role. I think you can hear it as if its an instrument--I do, anyway. You hear the air and the walls around the space. And there's no overdubbing and studio trickery.
The solo stuff varies and it's changed a bit over time. For awhile, I was very much into exploring all the angles and building stuff up, lots of layering and arrangements. I guess the studio becomes an instrument at that point. These days it's an instrument I'm pretty sick of playing, though. I'm just tired of being my own recording engineer--Lately, I've just wanted to get the ideas down quickly and hopefully grab something I wasn't expecting. Kohl was all one-take, mostly improvised guitar stuff. Although Hala Strana has a lot of overdubs it was done it that spirit as well. Moving fast and without expectations. I guess different groups and projects call for different methods. It's all good to me.
Concerning the environment in recording--that's a connection among all the Jewelled Antler releases I've heard, and why Hala Strana or Thuja are prime examples of what the label's all about, but all of this stuff--Glenn's Bird and Ivytree, Loren's Of, The Franciscan Hobbies, Blithe Sons, Finland's Uton and so on--is so utterly compelling and unique in that way. Can you tell us a bit about Jewelled Antler and its formation? Seems most of the best/interesting music today is being
released in tiny CD-R editions.
I can tell you a bit about it, but the whole idea of the "Jewelled Antler Collective" or whatever really centers around Jewelled Antler--the label-- which is where the name comes from and that's Glenn and Loren's effort.
They could explain their motives and concerns regarding the label better than I. Someone used the phrase "Jewelled Antler Collective" in an article or review and I guess it stuck. I don't think anyone sat around and decided we needed to start a collective or anything. We've been making music together and we've been playing on each other's recordings, borrowing gear, bouncing ideas off of each other for quite awhile. The label kind of put a tangible umbrella over it all and I don't know if that was an intention of their's or not, but it's kind of a nice thing. I figure one reason Glenn and Loren started the label was to just get some of this music released because there was so much piling up around them. They're really creating a lot of music with all these various groups and configurations and names, it's just been a pretty prolific period for them. I know they enjoy that aspect of it, creating a new group on the spot just for the hell of it, you know, it's a fun thing to do. But anyway, once they started the label, they began meeting people elsewhere in the world and collaborations started, tapes get sent around, and now it really has kind of grown into a small community of people from all over the place. It's interesting.
How does Thuja go about about creating music? Do you guys play out often?
It's a pretty loose set-up, actually. We'll play any instrument or object that happens to be at hand, and we just play-there aren't any songs to deal with and it's very organic, it just kind of starts going. Things build and recede, we do a lot of listening, mostly-that's the main thing, really, knowing when to complement what's going on, disrupt what's going on, or just keeping quiet and enjoying what's going on.
We record most every time we play, and then isolate the good moments and those become the records we release. We've never really talked too much about it, it's just always kind of sounded like this from the very start. It's a very natural process.
I get up to play with them a couple times a year. I don't live in San Francisco anymore so it's more sporadic than it used to be when I did live there, unfortunately, but maybe that keeps it interesting, I don't know. Sometimes they get together and play as a trio. We don't play shows in clubs very often at all. I mean, we've done that before but we're just so quiet that it doesn't really seem to be the best situation. Lately when we do play, we'll usually invite some friends over to hang out and maybe ask another group like the Muons to play with us and we'll do shows with them, usually in Rob's warehouse space, or maybe his backyard which is where we played the last time I was up there. That has turned out to be a great way to do things, and it's kind of on our own terms.
Are there any bands or performers today that tickle your fancy, or are you just stuck in the past like the rest of us?
I'm probably as stuck in the past as you are, I don't know. I always worried about becoming one of those people that only listens to modern composers or becoming a total jazz snob and just write off the rock, you know, loosing focus on what made you get interested in music in the first place. That's kind of a downer...but yet, here I am, getting a bit older and more and more I'm looking to the past and grumbling about how it ain't like it used to be. This is what it's come to.
But fuck it, there's good stuff going on now...there always is. You got to kick the grandpa in the ass once in awhile and try and find some things, I guess... I'm not really the person that is out searching for the most obscure music happening. I mean, it's all pretty obvious stuff. I love the music coming out of Finland on the Lal Lal Lal label: Kemialliset Ystavat, Avarus and so on which I know you and your readers are well aware of...I like that new Frog Eyes CD. It seems stupid to say but I love all the music my friends and fellow collaborators up in San Francisco are making, it's just getting better and better. There are some people that have been around a long time but they're just still amazing--people like Keiji Haino who I've been listening to a lot lately. His recent "To Start With, Let's Remove the Colour!" is brilliant, I love the hurdy-gurdy disc from "Abandon all words..." too.
Plans for the future, when's the Thuja world tour?
Probably no world tour, but there's always some more music to make........