Convivial Hermit, Issue Five, 2010
Before we start discussing your music and related topics, might we just to get a taste of the person behind the plethoric discography. Could you please fill us in briefly about your origins, familial/educational background, current geographical location and professional status?
Well, I was born in 1971 so my childhood was really the very end of the 70's and a lot of the early 80's, that whole scene. I grew up in Fullerton, California: home of the Fender guitar and a whole slew of great SoCal punk bands. I went to college up in Santa Cruz with many of the other members of the bands I've been in (both Thuja and Mirza) and I currently live in Los Angeles after spending the better part of the 90's up in San Francisco.
Do you recall at what age and under what circumstances you first picked up the thread of what would become your musical trajectory, first as a 'fan', then as a musician? Are you self-taught?
I definitely got hooked on your typical classic rock stuff: Cheap Trick and Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, and whatever else that my friend's older brother was listening to. We kind of looked up to this guy: he was older, he had long hair, he played drums, possibly smoked pot, etc. He was just the coolest dude and so we listened to what he listened to. This was probably around 4th grade, too young to really know what's cool on your own. And I'm really thankful for that because you could do a lot worse than 70's classic rock when you think about it, I mean this was also the era of disco and what have you. But I guess what might be unusual is that I was immediately obsessed with playing electric guitar, I just had to try it myself and so I bugged my parents to get me a guitar for the longest time. And I did eventually get an electric guitar around 13 years old and I immediately went about forming a band...so this stuff was in my sights right at the start. I am mostly self-taught, I took about a year of guitar lessons or so and then ditched that and went out on my own.
Can you please make a short inventory of the main instruments you came to use across the years, especially the 'exotic' ones featured on Hala Strana releases? To what extent is it 'easier' to handle old-fashioned instruments when one is already more or less proficient on the guitar?
Oh man, that would be a long list. I'll use anything if it makes a sound: Clay flower pots, spoons, springs, pipes, etc... I've built and assembled all sorts of things. As for more traditional music instruments: the hurdy gurdy is a great instrument which was used prominently on the Hala Strana stuff and I use it a lot on my other recordings as well. I built that one myself and it sounds like a bagpipe and a violin having a knife fight in a telephone booth. The spike fiddle is another favorite. The bouzouki and melodica have also been quite versatile and useful. The psaltery is another good one.
I don't know if using these instruments is any easier or harder than the others. But then I'm not interested in virtuosity. I'm not really great at playing any of them, but I'm also not afraid to try and I'll try my hand at any instrument. It's just sound. They're only notes, pitches. Use what you can and discard the rest, I say. Some musicians and music teachers are way too uptight about the so-called correct way to play things, or that you need to take lessons for years to learn to play things. But it's not brain surgery and I'm not auditioning for the symphony. I'm making records, and if the tune calls for the sound of a violin, then I'll get a hold of a violin and fuck around on it long enough to get the sound out of it I need, and then move on.
I suppose being a guitar player does help, because I'm comfortable with strings and the hand coordination to fret notes and from there it's not that big of a step to try a violin, for example. It's strings on a neck with a body basically. So I've played guitar for years and years and it took a long time to get comfortable on that instrument, but once you come to grips with one, it's really pretty easy to jump over to another one.
Reverse question: did you derive from your practical experience of, say, the bouzouki or the psaltery, original plucking or strumming techniques that you translated in turns to the guitar or other instruments to produce personal results?
Well, they all influence each other I suppose, that's bound to happen, but I can't think of any specific examples.
What aroused your interest in Balkanic cultures and popular musical expressions in the first place? Did you feel 'legitimate' borrowing from those folklores to enrich your own material? I have to say, the first time I stumbled upon an Hala Strana release (Fielding), I was totally baffled to learn that the band behind the music was from the States, so the influences at work definitely produce a convincing impression. What type of research did you conduct on those topics? Have you travelled across Central/Eastern Europe yourself?
I can almost pin point the exact time I became interested in traditional music from Eastern and Central Europe: I saw this band called Dog Faced Hermans back in, I don't know, 1993 or 1994 and in one of the songs the guitar player disappeared for a moment and came out with a viola while the song continued behind him and then they just burst into this traditional Romanian tune. It was fantastic. It really floored me. So I thought a lot about that and started following that trail and came across the Ex record with Tom Cora where they did the Muzsikas tune and then just kind of followed it from there. We saw Muzsikas play in San Francisco somewhere in there as well and found their records. Shortly thereafter I visited East Germany and the Czech Republic and in Prague I saw a trio of musicians playing some folk tunes outside on the sidewalk on an accordion, violin, and small drum or something and I thought that was a really cool thing. My interest kept growing from there and, I don't know, there's something in that music that really moves me and I got to thinking that I wanted to work within this sort of framework.
I did a lot of casual research while doing those Hala Strana records. I'll say upfront that I'm not an expert or anything, just a fan. But I went to the library and checked out lots of old records. I ordered tapes from the Smithsonian, and just generally scrounged up whatever music I could get my hands on. And I watched films by Sergei Parajanov, particularly Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors which I really loved, and still do. How that movie looked is how I wanted Hala Strana to sound. I also kind of brought in various images which represented this area: the photographs of Josef Koudelka, the early paintings by Marc Chagall of villages and musicians in Belorussia, and so on.
On the question of legitimacy...I think that's a real valid question and I see both sides. But to me it's just music and I never pretended otherwise. I didn't make up fake names for myself and the others who play on the record. I don't dress up like a villager in traditional garb or anything like that, and I didn't try and fool anyone and try and pass this off like it was a local band from that part of the world. I've always been straightforward about who I am and what this is all about.
This is just a celebration of this music and ultimately, I feel what I did was respectful of the spirit of these old songs. So I don't see it as some sort of cultural imperialism or anything like that, and if someone thinks that it is, I just disagree and feel like they probably have a misguided idea of some sort of cultural purity which doesn't actually exist. Everything has always been jumbled up--influences mixed and spread around. I mean it's just music, anyway. This is a record, not an ethnomusicological course. And traditional music is very much a dialog between the past and the present and I don't feel music necessarily belongs to only one area or only one group of people. That would be a very close-minded way to view things. It's music and it's meant to travel. It always has. It's communication and stories and emotion. So in the end, Hala Strana was just my interaction, a dialog, with this type of music.
Something that fascinates me about Eastern European musical is the extent of popular consciousness involved and its close relationship to people and soil. As a matter of fact even the most 'knowledgeable' music of the area contains perennial traces of national folklore, as clearly shown throughout the symphonic work of Smetana or Dvorak. From this proximity follows a strong identification between the music and secular inheritance: sensible, hard-working, tragic, honest come to mind. Any comments on that? Suffering as the mother of arts: is that a formula you would endorse?
Well, maybe what you're getting at is that this is "folk" music in the truest sense of the word. It's music of the people. It's not an academic exercise at the conservatory. This is music people would play at weddings, funerals, at parties, or when they were alone herding sheep. This was, and is, a part of people's lives. There's a very human element in this music, a lot of life and death and that's very appealing. It's honest expression. So I'm not surprised that some composers, such as those you mentioned, used elements of folk music in their compositions. Why not use it? They were inspired by it as well, I suppose, and saw a way to work it into their own music. Bela Bartok is another one that comes to mind, but I don't think that's unique to that area. Charles Ives is someone who over here in the States that also used traditional songs within his compositions. As far as suffering acting as the mother of arts, as you say-I'm not really sure. It's easy to romanticize suffering but that's probably only a part of where all this comes from.
What is the key driving factor for your inspiration to come pay a visit? Do you need strong visual inputs, for instance from sightseeing, travels, paintings, etc.? Or are you rather an indoors type of songwriter, searching for the sparkle within yourself with the aid of a quiet environment?
I'm much more of a solitary person and, generally, things seem to work from within and move outwards rather than the other way around. I don't really think too much about that sort of thing. It seems to work better if you don't examine it too closely. One thing I'm sort of tired of hearing about is so many musicians these days going on and on about how they're "shamans" or some sort of mystic and all that. Whatever. To me that just seems like trying to create a little myth around their group or persona and it's certainly kind of played out these days. I mean, if they have to explain to you that they're a mystic, they're probably not anyway! Or maybe it's just bad journalism, an attempt to try to put the musician into some sort of context. I don't know. I'm just a musician and these are just notes strung together. It doesn't have to necessarily mean anything. You can put whatever you want onto it. I'm just trying to do something that's honest and comes from the right place. That's what it comes down to.
Aside from willful improvisation, do you ever happen to compose something "by accident"? In other words, does it happen that the fruit of totally unfocused fumbling around ends up as exploitable riffs/melodies?
What I'm really interested in is creating a situation where accidents can happen, something that has possibility or potential to go in a few different directions. I'm speaking musically here. I gather certain instruments together, maybe pick a key to play in, or get a riff happening and then try to get to a space where something unexpected can happen. I'll be the first to admit that I don't really know exactly where I'm trying to get to. It's like chasing something in the dark or at twilight. It's never all that precise. Things sort of move away from you unexpectedly. Mostly I hope that I can get to a point where something interesting happens. But I rely on "happy accidents" almost completely when I'm recording. It wasn't always like this and I used to plan out things a lot more specifically, but these days, at most I'll think of an overall vibe or various mixtures of different instruments that might work well together rather than actual parts. I'll occasionally have a riff or a chord progression that may be the start of a piece, but then I always try to find the random elements that work with it. I'm fortunate in that I have my studio right here in my house so any unfocused fumbling may very well be the beginning of a record or a song because I can just turn on the mic and record it if something cool is happening right there in the moment. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that you can definitely try too hard to do something, and in the end it'll sound forced and that's something I try to avoid.
Could you introduce some of the main fellow musicians who have accompanied you on your releases? What exactly is the 'Jewelled Antler' collective and how does it relate to the concept of field recordings or 'outdoor folk'?
Oh, there are quite a few people. Both Glenn Donaldson and Rob Reger, who play in Thuja and a whole variety of other groups, I've known both of them since high school and have been in various bands with them through all that time. As for Loren Chasse, who is also in Thuja, we met him up in San Francisco and he is also very prolific with various solo projects and groups. Great people and great musicians...real creative guys. Look them up on Google or whatever and you'll find lots of great releases and info on them. Both Glenn and Loren are the backbone of Jewelled Antler. They ran the Jewelled Antler label and both were in a lot of the bands that released recordings on Jewelled Antler. They're both responsible for the overall aesthetic of whatever Jewelled Antler is. There are too many other people to mention here who were in a lot of those Jewelled Antler groups, but the three people above are the musicians I personally have played the most with.
I moved down to Los Angeles in 2000 which was a little before all this Jewelled Antler stuff really got going so I can't really speak too much about what Glenn and Loren wanted to do with the label and their philosophy. I would still travel up to San Francisco occasionally to play with Thuja and they would come down to Los Angeles to play, and Jewelled Antler released a bunch of the Hala Stana stuff and some of my solo stuff too. So I am certainly proud to have been a part of it, but I can't really speak too much about to whole thing, because my involvement was sort of from a distance. I missed a lot of the shows and there were so many different bands involved that I just wasn't there for. I can't even keep track of all of the groups! And the outdoor folk is something I never was really a part of. I think that was mostly the Blithe Sons and a couple other groups where they would travel out to the woods or deserted army bunkers along the coast or caves and record out there in those. Most of my stuff has been recorded in the more usual places like studios or living rooms or practice spaces, etc...
Taking Thuja for instance, which involves three persons besides you, how different is the songwriting process from projects where you're more or less the sole captain on board? Could you spare a few thoughts for us about this entity, which happens to be the most 'experimental' of your endeavours, at least regarding song architectures and the prominent use of ambient/electronic sounds, yet retains a strong connection to natural surroundings and human things...
Well, the main difference is that there is no songwriting or anything. It's totally improvised. We've never written one riff, or a melody, or anything. We would just sporadically get together and bring along a pile of instruments and objects, things we've built, broken autoharps, amplified tree branches with strings on them, anything. And set up a space and create this sort of environment which we would play. It is a sort of song architecture, as you described it. I like that way of putting it. Sounds sort of build up on top of each other and come back off the walls, echoes and reverberations build and recede. It just sort of grows. And anyway, we set up a stereo field recording mic somewhere in the room that seems like it will capture all the sounds happening in that room and that's it. There's no overdubbing or anything on those Thuja records. We certainly edit out a lot of stuff and try to just put only the best moments on those records, but that's really the whole set up. It's a very easy and immediate way to play. I suppose the overriding philosophy for us is to listen more than we actually play and to try and be sympathetic to what is going on in that moment, rather than start jamming or soloing all over everything, like you might be tempted to do in another musical situation.
I hear the band has a stage existence, too? Would you describe a typical Thuja live performance? What amount of upstream preparation goes into it? Do you usually feel that people are receptive to the actual music, or rather amused by the unusual sight of four guys playing around with stuff. How comes you don't play live with Hala Strana (at least to my knowledge), as it seems to me that the music has an enormous immersive power and is rather fit to elicit crowd response?
Yes, occasionally Thuja will get together and play live. There is absolutely no preparation that goes into it. Each person brings whatever instruments they feel like playing that evening. We might quickly find some objects to play from around the area as well. Since everything is improvised, it's not like we rehearse or anything. These shows are usually done in warehouse spaces, art galleries, we've played a number of shows in Rob's greenhouse up in Berkeley. Due to some of the instruments and objects we play, we're not very loud, so playing in the usual clubs and bars is a bit more complicated and not really a prefect venue for Thuja. We've done that a few times, but it's not ideal.
I think the people that would actually go out of their way to see Thuja play know what they're getting and enjoy it. I'm sure part of the fun might be to see what kind of crap we have up on stage, but mostly people are there to listen. We also usually have our friend Keith Evans doing some film stuff while we play so that's part of the experience as well.
I have not been able to get a group of people together to do Hala Strana live. I actually did try to put a group together once here in Los Angeles and even placed ads in the weekly and up at the college music departments and all that. But out of all the people who called, no one was on the same page as me, or could understand what I was trying to do. It was a total waste of time and so rather than just keep beating my head against a wall trying to get a band together, I just decided to forget it and just keep doing all the other things I do and keep moving forward. But in a perfect world, I could totally see a great Hala Strana band. I'd probably have some friends like Glenn and Loren and myself handling all the textures and various instruments such as guitar, organs, the hurdy gurdy and what have you to form the basis or foundation. Then on top of that if I could have one violin player and one reed player, say a clarinet or something, both of who would have to be able to really play well to handle all the lead melodies and also be able to improvise, I could see how it would work and could be a really great live group. But that just hasn't happened, which is OK by me. I like seeing bands play, but since Hala Strana wasn't ever a band to begin with, I don't see the need to force it into being something just for the sake of doing it because that's what musicians usually do.
When and how do you decide which of your material will feed the albums released under your birth name, instead of your other projects? Is it a fair guess to say that the music on those albums drifts closer to matters and thoughts of an autobiographic nature? Do you see the possibility of promoting personal philosophical ideas via pure sound?
Actually it's probably more basic than that. Mostly the solo stuff is just music I did on my own that doesn't have any set parameters, like Hala Strana or Ulaan Khol, to define it. With those projects, I know going into it that it's going to be this specific thing, but other times I just make music and it doesn't have any specific aesthetic that I'm trying to do and it needs to go somewhere so it usually just winds up under my own name, for lack of anything else. But having said that, I suppose looking back, some records like Kohl, or the Anchorite, and Owl as well, are a bit more personal and are usually more modest and minimal and probably do actually sound like one person in a room playing music, so it's fitting that it's released under my own name. The other end of that would be Hala Strana or Ulaan Khol where I am going out of my way to try and make it sound more like a group of people playing at once.
What does Ulaan Khol mean exactly? What kind of vibe/inspiration flows into this outlet? I get the impression it is slightly more rhythm-based than your solo stuff for instance. A nod to your earlier rock background maybe?
Yeah, Ulaan Khol is really like my power trio, if it was an actual band. I just wanted to blow off some steam, play loud, and it is sort of a nod to what we used to do in Mirza and stuff. 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.
In fact, what are the advantages of having several bands? Is it a way to keep the production cycle alive and running, to make sure that the inspiration well will not dry by switching between different universes?
The only real answer I have is that somewhere in my mind it makes sense that this one type of music is different from that other one. I don't know exactly why, because I suppose I could have put Hala Strana and Ulaan Khol under my own name but I really see them as different. And I like thinking up a new aesthetic for each thing, the cover art, song titles, the name of the group. It's enjoyable. On a very basic level, Hala Strana is the Eastern European influenced folk stuff, Ulaan Khol is the kind psychedelic/fuzz rock stuff, my solo stuff is anything else that I do on my own that doesn't really fall under the above categories. Thuja is obviously when the members of Thuja get together and play and Mirza is no longer around, but that very much a band with four members. Next year they may be another band or project, who knows....
From the feedback you receive, do you get the impression that people are generally 'into' every release bearing the Steven R. Smith seal, or that the appreciation is evenly spread across all your catalogue?
My guess is that most people probably like one thing more than the other. I do actually get emails where someone will say "I love your Hala Strana stuff but I don't really get into your solo stuff" or "I really like Thuja, but Mirza is too 'rock' for me" etc... and that's perfectly fine with me. I'm extremely happy if people like anything I've had a hand in. And I hope that each group or project has its own identity and sounds unique to itself.
Do you listen to your own albums from time to time after they've been released? If so, do you listen to them in a 'leisure-time' perspective just as you'd do with other albums, or is it just impossible for you to close the eye of self-critic on your work?
No, I don't really listen to any of my stuff after they come out. I listen to them a lot when I'm working on them, checking mixes, sequence, etc. But after it comes out as a release, I usually listen to it once with a couple drinks as a sort of celebration that it's finally finished, and then I put it away and forget about it. I just get too self-critical about them, and I'm usually sick of it by then anyway.
I've noticed that the limited editions of your albums (gatefolds, books, etc.) sell out pretty fast. Why is it important for you to get your music out in deluxe packaging for the enjoyment of a lucky few? Do you execute/supervize the making of these editions by yourself?
Ideally, the label and I can put out a version that's more handmade and limited and also do a version that's more widely available. I'm not purposely trying to make my music hard to get. But when we do the handmade covers, or the unusual packaging, I am always involved at some level and it's just impossible to do large numbers of those things. Take The Anchorite LP as an example: I personally cut the woodcut on the cover and inked and printed everyone one of those 500 prints by hand and signed and numbered them. It was an awful lot of work. I don't have a printing press or anything like that. It took me longer to print those covers than it did to record the music on the record. We're talking a couple months of printing those things in my free time. There's no way I could do more than what we did for the LP version. But it's really important for me do that. Firstly, I really enjoyed doing it and I think it's a beautiful cover. And secondly, I hope it might be an example or a statement that in this mass produced world, we can all still take a different approach and maintain the human element in the things we do. I hope there's a deeper connection between the artist or musician and the final object than just a product to be bought and sold. But, by their very nature, they have to be limited only because we can't physically make or financially afford the materials to produce a thousand or 1500 copies of these. It's not always easy to strike the perfect balance here, but I don't see that as a reason not to try and do this to the extent that we can.
A couple more casual questions to wrap up this interview. Are you more into sunrises or sunsets?
Are you a collector of anything non-musical?
Not really. I used to work at a rare book auction house and I took a few tentative steps into book collecting, but ultimately I don't have the time or money to get into that world. You need to either be rich or have a lot of time and patience to scour in all the dusty corners of the world to find the good stuff. It's just not for me. Plus, I'm actually trying to simplify things--it's bad enough with all the records and musical instruments. I need to clear this stuff out.
If you were given the opportunity to meet with someone important to your eyes - dead or alive - who would it be and why?
Do you have kids actually? Whatever the answer, what is your take on parenthood and musical education? Would you pay attention to lay down a specific path for your kids to follow, relating to your own definition of 'good taste'? How do you think you would react if your kids started listening to MTV gangsta rap or something - and sporting the appropriate clothes + attitude? Is there a limit to tolerance in such cases?
I actually do have a two year old son and this is something I think about all the time. Great question. Wow, I don't know how to tackle that. I guess what would really be bothersome if my son got into this kind of urban gangsta rap scene like you mention is that I just wouldn't be able to really relate to it, it's not something I am all that into, and then I would, like so many parents around the world, have this teenager that I wouldn't be able to really understand or connect with on this sort of level. And that would be a bit saddening but that's certainly not unusual. I'm sure my parents didn't understand me or how I dressed or what I listened to when I was a teenager. But you have to let your kid be themselves. Maybe he just likes rap music. That's cool. I can't and I wouldn't force feed him Albert Ayler and Captain Beefheart LPs if he didn't like it just so he can be like his dad. But the real worry here would be: is he just a poseur dressing up like a gangster to be cool with his friends or has he really gone off and gotten involved in gangs? Being a poseur is embarrassing but pretty harmless, but joining a gang is a seriously dangerous thing that is a reality where I live in Los Angeles. We've got gangs and shootings right down the street. I have no wisdom here to share, I'm making this fatherhood shit up as I go......
But to get back on track, you mentioned musical education. My son already seems to love music and will ask for you to put music on the stereo and he's fascinated with whatever instruments are laying around, so maybe I'll have a drummer to form a group with someday. I don't know. I'd obviously encourage any musical ability that he might have, but if he's not into music and is into sports or something else instead, that's cool. I'll go to all the games and do whatever I can to help him do that.
What album released in 2007 or 2008 have you been listening to the most lately? Recommend it in three adjectives.
Can I offer a small group of bands under the umbrella of Tuareg music? Group Inerane, Tinariwen, Tartit, Toumast, Group Doueh, etc... Three adjectives: flickering, expansive, nostalgic.
Let us end this with a little tiebreaker: in your last will you get to mention three particular objects you wish to be buried with you. One must have a very strong sentimental value, the second will have to be useful to you in the 'afterlife' and the third one symbolize the man you have been...
I think an electric guitar might answer all three.