Maelstrom. Isuue 12; March 2003
by Laurent Martini.
Maelstrom: How do you go about writing songs for Thuja?
Steven R. Smith: The music Thuja makes is completely improvised. So it that sense, the songs aren't written at all. We just get together and bring a variety of instruments, objects, and artifacts to be played and then we just start. It's a very natural process and we don't discuss what we'll be doing at all. At times it gets to be a racket but most of the time it really comes together. Surprisingly, when we all got together to play for the very first time, it pretty much just sounded like this, we have fine tuned the process a little bit over time, but really it's just always sounded like this. It's a very nice, organic method of creating sound in a room. We listen a lot when we play, and that's really the most important part of it-- listening to what the others are doing.
Your sounds with Thuja are vastly different than the ones on Kohl, how do you explain the difference?
I'd guess the sounds are different on account of the solo stuff just being me. Thuja is a group collaboration and we all contribute. So you have the sound of people playing together in a room, and each of the Thuja members have their unique voice and style which I could never duplicate or copy on my own stuff. On the whole, I'd say Thuja is more concerned with a more abstract way of playing, whereas my solo stuff is definitely more melody driven and dealing with harmonies and layers of sound and so on. I enjoy both.
Who/what are some of the influences that you have musically? And how have they affected Kohl?
Well, the whole idea of Kohl was that the fellow who runs 3 Acre Floor records, Jason Honea, asked me at a party to record a record for his label of just solo piano pieces. I drunkenly agreed, but when I later (much later) got around to actually trying to do it, I discovered that I'm just not that great of a piano player. I don't even own a piano and so it was hard to really get going on it at all, so I decided to do a record of just one-take guitar songs. This is in great contrast to my other solo records which have been very heavily layered with lots of instruments and so on. I really liked the idea of trying to make an interesting record with just one instrument and without it sounding like I was trying to be a virtuoso or a show off or something. Just nice songs which are hopefully spontaneous enough to stay interesting to a listener. Funny thing is Jason later moved to Germany and his record label is temporarily on hold so he didn`t release Kohl anyway.
As far as influences, I don't know what I was trying to do for Kohl aside from just struggling with the limitations of my own guitar playing. I like a lot of different stuff. Folk music, traditional musics, late 60's jazz, soundtracks, the usual post-punk stuff. Some favorites: Leonard Cohen, the Birthday Party/Crime and the City Solution, Pharoah Sanders (particularly his work with Sonny Sharrock), early Einsturzende Neubauten, the Band, Richard Thompson, Zoviet France, Brian Eno, Scott Walker (especially his Tilt LP), the Fall, Popol Vuh, the list just goes on and on.
Is this you first solo album? Do you wish to do more? And if so what different styles do you see yourself experimenting with?
I've actually released quite a few solo records, probably around 5 or 6 others since 1996. Some of those came out in very limited editions on small labels and a few have been on bigger labels like Emperor Jones who I have continued to work with. Kohl may be the last solo release for awhile. There will be a limited vinyl edition of Kohl on Emperor Jones in July which will come with the book and also a large hand printed woodcut print. After that I'm going to focus on another project I've started called Hala Strana which is based a lot on the old traditional folk music from Central and Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Czech Repub., etc.). That first CD will be out in April on Emperor Jones as well and I've even started recording for the next one to boot. I'm really excited about this stuff and have been doing a lot of research on it from old field recordings from the 40's, 50's and 60's. I'm doing kind of abstract interpretations of a few traditional songs but have also just written a lot of my own songs based on the modes and scales and instrumentation from the music from this region.
Everything about Kohl is so unique, from the sound to the song titles to the packaging, how long did this project take?
The recording for the music was really quick, like a couple weeks, and those were very lazy days. Typically I'd do one song a night and just go in with a couple beers, sit down and pick which guitar I was going to use and set the levels and then just maybe record 2 or 3 attempts at a song and keep the best one. There was no overdubbing except for the little outros that pop up at the end of each song. Almost all of it was improvised right there (aside from a few little themes that I had worked out which I would keep returning to within some of the songs). It was a very loose and immediate way to make a record. There was no bullshitting around doing a million overdubs and creating some dense monstrosity. You immediately knew if the take was good or shit and that was the end of it. I usually have a tendency to just pile crap on and see what comes of it but I didn't allow myself to do that this time which definitely made things less complicated.
Now the book, on the other hand, seemed to take forever to make because I did them all by hand. I had to fill all the baggies with seeds, I did the woodcut images, and then had to layout and Xerox and staple all the books together, draw each book cover, etc....I worked on those off and on for a couple of months. Just a little bit here and there. The outside covers were also drawn by hand and the woodcut print that will come with the vinyl version (they were too big for the CD envelopes) I had printed a year or so ago for a different vinyl release which ended up coming out on CD instead, but they fit real well with Kohl as well. I really like doing stuff like that and plan to do more. It's hard though with the mass produced CDs labels usually run off because usually the minimum run is 1000 copies and that's an awful lot of packaging to do by hand. But when it's possible, I'll do more of this kind of stuff.
How did you go about writing songs for Kohl? Did you try to create different moods according to the songs?
Mostly, I just tried to make each one different from the others (i.e. using an acoustic guitar vs. an electric guitar, playing more sparse and abstract vs. more folk oriented, playing with a metal stick vs. fingerpicking, etc). By allowing myself to use only a guitar, it was hard to not make them all sound alike and I hope I succeeded in getting at least a little variety in there. I also had some of the woodcut images in the book finished at that point and some of those pertained to a specific song idea so I would keep those images in mind while playing.
Working by yourself on Kohl and working with other band members in Thuja, how is the experience different?
The solo stuff is really based around my whims and ideas, whatever I feel like pursuing at the time. Thuja is most definitely a group experience and a situation where you leave your ego at home and just try to contribute to the greater whole. They are actually almost polar opposites in method.
One last question. Rob told me that you are studying (or have studied) rare and antique books. Could you please tell me more about this? Is this a hobby or something that you enjoy doing as a career? Has this influenced your work in any way?
I worked as a cataloguer in a rare book auction house up in San Francisco for about four years, and have since gone on to grad school focusing on archives and special collections. It was (and still is) more of a job than a hobby. I don't collect rare books or anything as I can't afford that kind of hobby, but I find it sort of interesting. I am not an expert by any means and have gotten a bit rusty with it since I went back to school. It did have an influence on my music in some ways-- many song titles and some of the artwork which have been used on some of my records came out of various rare books that I was working with at the time which caught my eye and found their way into whatever music I was dealing with. Also, I guess I have an affinity for items which have some age to them, some visible history and, in a way, I would be happy if some of that came through in the music that I make.