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Ear Pollution. Vol. 2; Jan 6, 2003

by Edgar Ortega

I don't think I'll ever see through the music of Steven R. Smith and Glenn Donaldson. Regardless of whether they're playing by themselves, as Mirza or Thuja, their music always seems like an unwieldy yarn. Mirza's long-winded psychedelics are too oblique to count as epic, Steven's gray lonesome strumming is too cluttered for melancholy, and Thuja's music is too precious to cast off to the wide ocean of abstract improv. Their music jumps above the adjectives, dissolves when you think you've put your finger on it, and burrows if you try to look at it coldly.

Earpollution thought a brief visit with Steven and Glenn would reveal the hidden thread to their music. Perhaps after a conversation we would be able to hum along to their distended guitar lines, or know where a Thuja song will go after its opening minute. But we're still at a loss, unfortunately. Although they speak frankly about their music, we're short on answers.
First, a little music history. They grew up in Fullerton, California, and went to college together in Santa Cruz. They moved to San Francisco, started a small label, Autopia, and a tremendous band, Mirza. "We still had high hopes of being in a rock band and going on tour and stuff," says Glenn. "Me and Steve kind of shared that dream growing up, and then we just saw the reality of having to deal with different people and having to get it together for rehearsal."
Sometimes they speak of Mirza as if its jacked instrumentals had been instead the straight-and-narrow jams of a rock band. "We had a practice space and we played regularly. You know, paying the bill for the space, going to a studio to record," says Glenn. Yeah, but what about the unhinged guitars and feverish feedback? What about the roundabout songs that climbed higher and higher with a bang and a clash? Glenn looks back with skepticism: "We thought an album had to fit a certain idea, and so we let go a lot of the more jagged material."

Mirza faded away before its time when Brian Lucas suddenly moved to Spain and Mark Williams headed for New York in 1998 (Mark now lives in Thailand). It was all too sudden for Glenn, who for two weeks this year sifted through 50 old Mirza recordings and compiled a posthumous album. "Last Clouds was the closest to what we sounded like in the practice space, naively trying to reach some sort of bliss through insanely loud, free-form music," said Glenn in an early e-mail.

Ever since Mirza disbanded, Steven Randolph has ploughed his four-track for a hand-full of EPs and a half-dozen brooding full-lengths. He surmised his solo music in a pithy sentence in one of his e-mails: "It's mostly just working with sound and putting certain things on top of other things and trying to find things that I'm happy with." Well, he is consistently pleased with songs that evoke a dark night in a huge field -- the music is grand, a little creepy, and it makes you wonder if you need a coat.

Glenn is much less consistent. He partners up with a revolving cast of musicians for different projects such as Knit Separates, The Birdtree, Blithe Sons, and Skygreen Leopards. Glenn says he starts from the edges -- with a song title, an album cover or a band name -- and works his way toward a set of full-fleshed songs. Each set is very different but also very close to perfect; you've got the pastoral twanging of the Blithe Sons, as well as the sparkling jangle of the Skygreen Leopards.
Glenn and Steven, still smarting over Mirza's sudden end, rounded up another quartet in 1998. For Thuja, they enlisted the fantastically prolific Loren Chasse and Rob Reger, an old friend from Fullerton who also went to school in Santa Cruz. (Reger, incidentally, is the creator of the comic Emily the Strange.) Legend has it they improvise for hours, playing with broken guitars, bicycle wheels, cat litter and more regular junk. How do they get these far-out sounds to coalesce? Steven is tight-lipped: "Playing with them is just very natural and really easy. Really, we're just friends who have known and played music together for years."

The Glenn and Steven musical mystery grows even larger when it comes to Thuja. We asked Steven for a picture of the band playing, but instead we got two pictures of thuja trees. We asked Glenn if the band's name referred to the type of cedar, but he also pointed out that "it's a beautiful word, and it fits the forests of sound we are trying to create." We asked Glenn to tell us more about Thuja's three new albums, but he said he couldn't really describe two of the albums.
Anyway, we tried. We checked in with Glenn and Steven separately to see how they conjure up their music. Here's an edited transcript of our phone conversation with Glenn, followed by a month-long e-mail exchange with Steven.

Glenn Donaldson: I had roped Loren into doing the interview as well, but he hurt his back this weekend recording under a bridge.

Now, I know from Loren's website that he does a good deal of recording outside. What about yourself? Were you with him?

Glenn: Loren and I do a duo, Blithe Sons, that we put out on our own label, Jewelled Antler. We did an album that was a mix of studio stuff and field recordings, and the second album was pretty much all live outdoors. It's just the idea of getting different textures. Sometimes the studio space is fun to work with, other times it just sounds fake. There's all this rich sound that you can create under a bridge or in warehouse.
For Thuja, we've incorporated some outdoor recordings within the albums. Once, we found this beached fishing boat on a sand bar up north, and we played on the boat and incorporated the chain of the anchor and the sound of the water. But Thuja pretty much plays at Rob's warehouse. It's kind of a space in itself; it's really part of the music. He has these birds that are always chirping and sometimes you'll hear them in Thuja. Certain pitches will set them off and they'll just start singing in response to the sounds.

The recording on the boat, what album did that make it into?

Glenn: We put out these two three-inch CDs. They were these limited editions, which are actually gone, but they were called Thuja Museum No. 1 and Thuja Museum No. 2. We packaged them in these boxes, one with a small lichen encrusted stick, the other one had an ocean theme. We filled the box with shells and crab claws. The boat recording was on the ocean one.

So you had done a few albums prior to The Dear Lay Down Their Bones?

Glenn: We've been playing since late 1998 and Dear Lay Down Their Bones came out in 2000, so we have a whole backlog of material spanning from 1998 to now. We record pretty much everything we do, but we pick certain moments where particular sounds collide in ways that sound like songs. The three new full-length records coming out span pretty much our whole time together. And actually, I just kind of edited a fourth one.
Steve lives in Los Angeles now, so we often play in trios. Two of us will go down and play with him, or the three of us will play up here. We rarely play as a quartet now. He recently came up to play a show with us, so we have this great really long recording. I'm probably going to edit that into another album some when.

So you get together at this warehouse and improvise. I guess you bounce ideas off each other and listen out for what others are doing. Can you tell me more about the process?

Glenn: All four of us have our own obsessive ideas about music. Each person in the band has their own solo projects and different desires for what they want out of music. For instance, Rob was doing a lot of piano and we told him that maybe we had enough recordings with piano. The next week he started playing bicycle wheels with violin bows. It sounds like a wild drone sometimes, it's almost like a wind instrument. In Thuja, the only ideal is to create this mood or these moments. To me it's very mysterious and I like it that way.

Thuja is more like, "Hey, does anyone feel like doing Thuja today?" And then we just go over there, haphazardly carrying weird instruments. We sit around, make key and then go into these sound meditations or whatever. Something happens when we get deep into this music. Loren described it in a Wire article as doing weird yoga, and I can't think of a better way to describe it than that. It just feels really good and dreamy and strange and mysterious. We always leave feeling really...relaxed.

In the warehouse, Rob has all these great plants, all these succulents and cacti that look like Doctor Seuss plants, so these are surrounding us as we play. He also has this huge moldy painting of a Viking ship going out to sea. I feel there's this fictitious journey that we're trying to create with the music.

You mentioned Rob playing bicycle wheels with a bow. What are you playing these days?

Glenn: I tend to play this Ace Tone organ, but I also play the bouzouki, the violin, the accordion, an electric guitar. We have so much junk that we haul over there. Rob has all these broken guitars; he's got maybe four acoustic guitars each with maybe four strings. You play them and they sort of ring and rattle. We just collect junk and instruments and try to incorporate them. Often times I hear the recordings and can't tell which instrument is which. To me that's an exciting recording; I feel like I'm listening to a new band that I just bought.

With all these instruments that are and they're not, does it take you a while to warm up?

Glenn: We've been doing it for a long time now and sometimes it just starts happening right away. We record pretty much everything we do, though only portions of it make it to the albums. I'm all for improv groups that have one session be an album -- that's great. But we decided to glean only the best moments. So what you hear on the album is maybe ten minutes of one hour-long session. We all really like improv, but we also really like songs and so we pick certain moments, or collisions of certain sounds that kind of sound like songs.

How do you edit the pieces together?

Glenn: We never really created any rules for ourselves. Me and Loren do the bulk of the editing, just because we're more obsessed with that type of stuff than the other two guys, and they're doing other projects and don't necessarily have the time. But yeah, we all have an input.
There's very little editing done. Sometimes you're hearing a passage that goes on for five minutes, or you'll hear two minute-long sections that overlap slightly because we liked one part but there was an annoying crash in the middle. There's no overdubbing, and occasionally there's a little equalizing or compression or reverb just to get the texture right. We do some crafting, but mostly we're using the raw material. There's only one microphone.

What music are you listening to these days?

Glenn: I do a lot of music writing, so I listen to different music all the time. I'm really into some of the stuff on this label from Finland called Lal Lal Lal. They're just doing this beautiful, free-form music. It sounds like mad peasant dances with crazy noises and mysterious artwork. I find it really inspiring. I feel it has a lot in common with what we're doing, especially with Thuja, but also with the Jeweled Antler label. There are these groups called Avarus, Kemialliset Ystavat, and a group called The Anaksimandros. I just like the mystery they weave with their music and artwork. I think it's pretty great.

In one of your e-mails you mentioned the possibility of Thuja going to Finland.

Glenn: Yeah, we kind of have this dream of going to Finland. Some of the guys are really into hiking and traveling and seeing forests and vistas and coastlines. We've made contact with these really nice people in these bands, and just have this fantasy of going there, but I don't know if it will happen. We actually had an offer to play in Stockholm, Sweden. We've put the idea in our heads to make the trip. We also have an offer to play in this gorge out in Oregon. So maybe we'll get a van and go camping and just try to make some recordings as we make out way up north to Oregon. We've actually done quite a bit of that around here. So maybe we'll turn that into a "rock tour" but, you know, only on campgrounds and national parks.

Are all four of you equally interested in this idea of recording outside?

Glenn: Well, three quarters of us are. You can ask Steve about that. He's more of an indoors guy. I'm not sure if he's actually ever been camping. Rob, Loren and I are really into the outdoors and derive a lot of our inspiration from that. Steve, I think, is more into imaginary landscapes than real actual ones.

Is this a point of contention?

Glenn: No, but you should ask him, it would be interesting to see what he has to say. Usually the trips take place without him. We haven't tried to harass him into doing it. He's probably afraid he'd get his boots scuffed up or something.

Let me ask you a little about Mirza. You mentioned in an earlier e-mail that the band "faded before its time." What did Mark and Brian think about you putting together Last Clouds?

Glenn: I think they both liked it and appreciated that I put it together. They didn't have to do anything. Mark wrote me back; and international shipping to Thailand is weird so I hope Brian got his CDs. I think it was good to hear those songs. That album especially sounds like what we sounded like when we went down to the practice space and played every Sunday.
The first four tracks are from the first 12-inch that Steve and I put out on Autopia, which was our label a few years back. The rest really runs the gamut from 1994 to the very end of when we were playing together. It was fun going through all the tapes. I think at the time, we were kind of self-conscious about putting out more albums. We didn't put them out because maybe we thought people wouldn't like it because it's too messy, but in retrospect it's the best stuff because it's completely unhinged. That's really when we sounded the best, when we weren't trying to sound too cohesive, when it was just out of control. So that's why I put out the album. I wanted to show people what Mirza was about: this crazy situation-overload music.

You have Mirza, Thuja, Blithe Sons and then all these other projects, yet you talk about each band as if it had its own unique character. How do you keep them all straight?

Glenn: I get this concept and I try to populate it with songs. A lot of times I really get into the cover art, and song titles and ideas and band names, and who's going to play on it. It's sort of like creating these little worlds. I like playing in a band like Thuja that has its own character and no one tries to control its direction. We just let it happen. And so I have these other projects to express different ideas that I have.
I have this hunger to listen to all kinds of new music and I hear stuff in my head that I want to turn into albums. Loren and I have talked about this -- we're sort of making albums that we want to hear. I hear this album in my head, and then I go to the record store and I just can't find something like it. And I realize that I have to make that album in order to listen to it. Sometimes it's just as simple as reading a line in a book or seeing a photograph that will get us to start a new band.

Finally, you mentioned Thuja has three new albums. Can you describe them briefly?

Glenn: We have one coming out on Emperor Jones called Suns. I feel like this one's really different from the other two. The songs are definitely more minimal and stretched out and kind of distant sounding. It's very subdued. We consciously picked songs that gave off this real cold light. There are some moments on there that are more song oriented, but the whole thing is just one barren plane.

We did one called Pine Cone Temples, which is to follow up Suns on Emperor Jones. That one has a lot of live shows edited on to it. Just kind of captures what it's like when we play in front of an audience. I haven't listened to that one back as much, so I can't really describe it.
The one we just did is called Hills and that's coming out on Last Visible Dog. That one really feels like the title; some of it feels like there are horses charging over hills, or people playing gongs on mountaintops. I can't really describe it.

And you're already working on a fourth album, I think you said.

Glenn: It's something we really love doing and we'll probably continue doing it. I think it has this long life for us because it is real loose. Thuja is the band where you can play whatever you want. There aren't a lot of rules about the sort of instruments you have to bring. And so it's always exciting to show up because you don't know what's going to happen, but you know that it's going to have this certain quality to it because everyone brings their own thing to it. It's about this group sound that is kind of mysterious, that is sort of fun to dwell in.

For a little more than a month, three questions at a time, we traded e-mails with Steven R. Smith. He preferred writing instead of talking on the phone. We've pieced together the entire exchange with only a few omissions and a slightly different order to questions.

How do you write your songs?

Steven R. Smith: Well, it seems to be a little different with each record, but generally I just mess around on a guitar or piano, like most musicians do, and bang around until I stumble onto a melody or chord progression that catches my ear. I mostly tend to think about instrumentation and arrangements, rather than the exact notes. You know, maybe a noisy violin, some scattered drums, and a fuzzy organ drone might work really well on top of a given chord progression. It isn't until I'm actually recording that I really try to figure out exactly what that violin will play, or what that organ drone will sound like. And I just kind of wing it until it starts to shape up into something.

Now, some records have been different. For Lineaments, I got really into much more of a compositional thing, which focused on writing out melodic lines of different lengths that would overlap and repeat. This way, when they all played together they would go into "rounds" that never synced up. I did that on quite a few songs, and that accounts for the static nature of that record. I admit that on the surface, some of it is kind of repetitive and maybe sounds like I didn't bother to finish the song or something. But underneath, there is a lot more happening. The relationships between notes keeps shifting around, there're all these moving bits of melody layered on top of each other. Maybe it was too subtle, I don't know.

I am currently working on a new project called Hala Strana, which is based more on traditional folk music from eastern Europe. That process has been different as well, and has a lot more to do with sorting through old field recordings from the 1950s and trying to incorporate them into something that sounds different and doesn't come off as contrived or forced.

Are you working with other people on that project? What got you thinking about eastern European folk music? How far along it the project and is a release imminent?

Steven: At the moment Hala Strana is just me playing everything, but I've thought about bringing in other people, and that's a possibility for the future. I guess the reason for a different name and all that is because I see a clear distinction in focus and feel from my other solo work, and I hope that it will come through in the recording. It's hard for me to be objective, but I certainly tried to approach it differently.
I use eastern European folk and traditional music as a starting point. That's not to say that this will sound like a traditional polka band or anything. I'm not trying to be a preservationist at all -- quite the opposite actually. In the end, I'm hoping to get something new and honest and hopefully my own.
I have always been a fan of eastern European music, which I was first exposed to through the music of Muzsikas, as well as from traveling over there quite a few year's ago. After picking apart some things I found that the scales, intervals and notes that I have always naturally used are very similar to the traditional modes and scales, so I was already half way there anyway. I wanted to get more into it and open things up.

Also, at the time, I was listening to The Band an awful lot, and so I wanted to do a recording that was very natural sounding and somewhat timeless, like those first couple Band LPs, you know?

So that's how I approached it: no keyboards except for an organ, and I used primarily acoustic instruments: violin, cello, acoustic guitar, the harmonium, although there is some electric guitar in there, as well, and some homemade instruments. But no extra reverb or wild effects and so on. Just a real basic, natural recording. Hell, it's even in mono. It sounds more organic and natural than some of my other music. So yes, a record is done and should hopefully be out early next year if all goes as planned.

In what ways is your music different to the songs of Mirza and Thuja? Do you play differently by yourself than with others?

Steven: I think there's a pretty big difference between all of the groups. Mirza was definitely a rock band. We played loud and tried to push the music and our playing as far as we could until a song would just collapse, and then try another one. And although it was largely improvisational, we were still working within a pretty standard "rock" format. The drums and bass held down the rhythm, and the guitars, keyboards, tapes or whatever would create the textures and noise...the psychedelic stuff, the melody.
With Thuja, I don't think any of us has ever discussed what it should sound like, or what instruments we should have, or what to play. Everything has always been improvised from the very beginning, songs are never played again, and the more variety in instruments and sounds and methods the better. It's completely open. So in that case, it's truly free.

We play much more quietly than a rock band in order to accommodate these various instruments and sound sources, and the structures have nothing to do with riffs, or drum beats, or parts, or whatever. We just play anything we happen to bring that day or whatever is laying around, we record it and that's it. We really just try to listen to each other when we play and try to compliment whatever is going on at that moment in time.
For the solo stuff, obviously it's just me overdubbing and that changes everything. I can do really convoluted arrangements, or try things that might take too much time to do with a band, or I can quickly improvise something right to tape. In its own way, there's a lot of freedom, too. I can get kind of self-indulgent, which on paper probably doesn't sound like a very good thing... some people might not think it sounds so good on the stereo either.

Glenn has already told me a lot about Thuja. But let me ask you, do you think the band, or its music-writing process, has changed through the years?

Steven: That's a good question and not one I've thought much about. If anything, I suppose it's just getting more and more abstract. I don't question it much at all. I certainly don't have any sort of an agenda. Thuja started with just us four getting together for the enjoyment of making some music once in a while, really. And it pretty much just sounded like Thuja from the first time. Looking at some of the recordings, which should surface in the near future, I'd say it's naturally getting more abstract. There isn't any real writing process at all because everything is created right there on the spot, in the moment, so there isn't any forethought...only afterthought.

I asked Glenn if all four of you in Thuja were interested in recoding outside and playing at camp grounds. He said that you were more an indoors sort of guy and suggested I ask you about it.

Steven: That's kind of funny that Glenn would put it that way, but I guess it's true. I'm certainly the one least likely to want to go play music out in the woods or in some national park or something -- do a tour of forests and natural sites...fucking hippies! I mean that as a joke, but the other Thuja guys enjoy that sort of thing much more than I do, and they go camping frequently.
I don't know, I just don't dig camping all that much, it's pretty much that simple. I've enjoyed the redwood forests up north, especially if I've got a bottle of wine in my hand. I like the desert down here in Southern California as well, but it's always in little fits and spurts, for a few hours at a time. I guess I have a low tolerance for being stuck out somewhere for awhile. I just get itching to get back to other things.

Do you play live shows often? I imagine it would be hard to do on stage with all the layers of sound in one of songs.

Steven: Well, Mirza played quite a few shows and as a group it was really set up to do that, as far as volume and instruments. Thuja has played a couple of shows as well, but not very many. As far as solo shows, I haven't done any.
You're absolutely correct in that I, too, feel it'd be pretty hard to put all the sounds together in a live setting. And frankly, I don't want to try and get people to be in "my" band. It would feel strange to be billed as "Steven R. Smith" and then go onstage with a group of people. It feels strange enough just to put stuff out under my own name sometimes. For the most part I don't really enjoy getting up in front of people all that much; I think I lost the taste for it somewhere. Sometimes I just get the feeling that being onstage with a guitar slung around your neck is pretty silly. Mostly, I just like playing for ourselves and recording. I can't speak for the others in Thuja, but I personally find it more enjoyable and I think the results are better as well.

Ever tried making music with just a computer? Would you like to try that once?

Steven: I haven't really worked with them too much. I'm not strictly against them, and Loren has recently gotten a set up going on his computer so Thuja will probably be taking some advantage of that. For the most part I think I prefer tape. I like the sonic qualities of it and the physical aspects of handling and working with it. I like the ritual of it all -- it makes you feel like you're at the helm of this machine. The act of sitting and staring at a computer monitor, clicking with your little mouse is not the most enjoyable way of spending time, for me. And the sound qualities of tape -- the hiss, the saturation, the dirtiness of it -- is what I actually prefer. But I'd give it a go if I had access to one. Never say never.

I've obviously listened to your records these last couple of weeks; and to be honest, it's hard for me to tell them apart entirely. They seem to have a similar mood. Does that sound right to you?

Steven: Ha. Well, I don't know if it's good or bad that you can't tell them apart. I always liked artists who kind of obsessively kept digging away in their own space, groups like  Zoviet France and Muslimgauze come to mind, although I don't sound much like either. I always liked getting into their unique little world and completely submerging myself in it. To some people, both of those artists' records might all sound the same on the surface, but if you get in there you can hear the differences and engage yourself with it and see how they progressed over time. I'm not trying to imply that my records are of the caliber of their material, but I always liked their methods and overall aesthetic.
I have certain ideas that I just can't stop from pursuing and so, yes, it is intentional that there is a similar mood on all of my solo records. I'm just trying to make music honestly, and in accordance with what I feel and have an ability to do. That's all any musician should be doing, I think. So I would hope that there is some sort of continuity coming through my records. That's just the way that I hear music in my head.

Finally, what are you listening to these days? What are some of your musical guilty pleasures? (I've rediscovered my early Pet Shop Boys' records.)

Steven: Well, because of the Hala Strana stuff I've been listening to a lot of the field recordings and stuff from eastern Europe, the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Folkways stuff. But looking at the stack of records that I've been listening to this week, we have: a Townes Van Zandt LP, Our Mother the Mountain, which is on as I write. Sonny Sharrock's Black Woman. Nicely Out of Tune Lindisfarne The Idiot by Iggy Pop. And some excellent music from the Finnish label Lal Lal Lal that Glenn just recently turned me onto, which puts out some great experimental-folk stuff from groups like Markus, Kemialliset Ystavat, and Avarus. The Lal Lal Lal stuff is some of the most intriguing music I've heard all year. Some old faves: Scott Walker's Tilt. The Birthday Party's Mutiny. And just about anything by .Leonard Cohen.

Guilty pleasures? Shit, I don't know. I've always been partial to the first four Cheap Trick LPs, which my girlfriend absolutely hates but they always put me in a good mood. They were, in fact, the first records I ever bought with my own money back when I was a wee one. But actually I don't feel guilty about enjoying those records at all. Those records are excellent in my book.