Genres of One: Exploring a host of artists who carve out musical categories of their own.
Pitchfork: The Out Door, Feb. 7, 2014
by Marc Masters
In this edition of The Out Door, we explore the idea of music connected by something other than genre, and talk to three artists who have carved out categories of their own through their many projects and endeavors: Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist Steven R. Smith, Dublin-born guitarist Cian Nugent, and New Orleans-residing cellist and singer Leyla McCalla. (Follow The Out Door on Twitter and Tumblr for all types of experimental music news and information.)
II: Steven R. Smith: Split Personality
“It’s just fun to come up with new names and new artwork and a new aesthetic,” says Steven R. Smith, explaining why he’s adopted so many monikers for his music. “It’s like a new window that I can approach in a different way and not feel like I’m betraying this other thing that I’ve worked hard at.”
To date, Smith has worked under five different names: Hala Strana, Ulaan Khol, Ulaan Markhor, Ulaan Passerine, and simply Steven R. Smith. The sound of each is identifiable, yet they overlap enough that if you’re drawn to one, you’ll find something to like in all of them. They’re all primarily instrumental—most center on Smith’s guitar—and they all bear his unique combination of abstract soundscapes and cinematic songcraft.
If the lines between these projects are a bit blurry, that’s fine with Smith. He’s not out to reinvent himself with each one, just to stretch in new directions. “Someone could argue that this all could have come out under my own name, but it’s fun to have it all over the place,” he says with a laugh. “It’s confusing, but I’m not worried about hurting the brand. Fuck the brand! We’re having fun here.”
Smith’s latest way of fucking with the brand is his new double LP Ending/Returning, a “split” release in which he plays the same seven pieces twice, once as himself and once as Ulaan Khol. The Steven R. Smith disc is gentler and more distant, accented with piano—an instrument Smith has rarely included on record—and deliberate string work. Ulaan Khol’s sides offer thicker, amp-driven textures, at times recalling Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack. But both have a contemplative sense of loss, desolation, and—eventually, on the bright closer “The Known World”—celebration.
On paper, Ending/Returning sounds pretty conceptual, but in reality it grew, like all of Smith’s records, out of spontaneous experimentation. When he first made a few pieces under both guises, he assumed he’d eventually settle on one or the other. “But then I got attached to both versions and thought, 'This is kind of interesting,'” he recalls.
“To be honest, most of the time, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’m just trying things,” he continues. “My goal is to create a situation where accidents can happen—hopefully good accidents. There’s never perfection; I’m not looking for that. I’m just looking to get something that I didn’t expect. Because then hopefully people listening will hear something that they weren’t expecting. ”
Which means improvisation is a huge part of Smith’s process, even in songs that end up sounding pre-written. Often, he'll start a piece thinking about a few things he wants to do, but not knowing how he’ll connect those parts. “If everything’s written, it’s not so much fun to record it,” he insists. “If you already have this thing in your head of what it’s supposed to be, then you’re just setting yourself up for frustration—‘It’s not what I’m hearing in my head!’”
Smith’s preference for the unplanned goes back to his earliest musical experiences. During high school in Fullerton, California, he recalls frustrating bandmates by taking liberties with their songs. At the same time he met Glenn Donaldson, who shared his love of musical spontaneity. The two ended up in San Francisco, where they formed Thuja with fellow Fullerton classmate Rob Reger and sound artist Loren Chasse.
“We came out of punk rock, and when we were in college, math rock was in,” he recalls. “We had a band in college that did that, but eventually we got tired of it—that whole playing songs in crazy, regimented time signatures. Once we got to San Francisco we thought, enough of that, let’s loosen up." Thuja were so open to experimentation that they became known for using non-traditional instruments and even non-musical objects like branches and rocks. They also became one of the central bands in the Jewelled Antler Collective, started by Donaldson and Chasse and also including The Skygreen Leopards, The Blithe Sons, and Ov.
Smith moved to LA in 2000, only a year after Jewelled Antler began, but he still feels its effects. “I basically learned how to play music with those guys,” he says. “I learned a lot from Loren. The way he would coax sound out of the craziest objects really opened up things a lot, and I’m sure all of that still has play in my music.” Though Thuja is essentially finished, Smith still talks to his compatriots regularly. “I just saw Glenn last week, and we still pass music back and forth, trading ideas,” he says. “The influence is still happening.”
Perhaps the most concrete sign of Jewelled-Antler’s influence is Smith’s habit of making his own instruments. “It’s mostly out of necessity,” he says of the hurdy gurdies, violins, and guitars he’s built. “I can’t afford some instruments, and if you hear these colors in your head, you have to get them from somewhere.” He’s built a xylophone with spoons and a spike fiddle out of a gourd. “I’m sure a violin player would be appalled by [the spike fiddle]” he says with a chuckle. “But it’s been amazing for me. I use it on almost every record.” Smith also cites groups such as Einsturzende Neubauten and Art Ensemble of Chicago for inspiring him to craft unusual tools. “I’d see pictures of them where their stage was just littered with stuff,” he recalls. “I would think, ‘wow, I’d love to be on that stage. I want to handle all that stuff and see what noises it all makes.’"
Most of Smith’s hand-made instruments reside in the small recording studio he’s set up in a house he shares with his wife and seven-year old son. That’s just one benefit he’s found from moving to Los Angeles. “There’s an anonymity factor here,” he says. “It’s just so big and sprawling, you can find your little space and inhabit it.” As to whether his environment has a tangible effect on his music, he’s not so sure. A lifelong Californian, he doesn’t consider his work “desert music.” But his sounds do often have a open-spaces feel, and he has noticed that “on a lot of my album covers, there’s this kind of long-distance horizon imagery. That’s always stuck in the back of my head for some reason.”
Distinctive album art has been just one of the ways Smith has been able to separate his various musical persona. The sonic differences grow stronger with each release, something that Entering/Returning accelerated. “It definitely helped define [the two projects] more,” he insists. “On other records I think you can hear more of a crossover, but this made things move to the left and the right. Louder guitars and fuzz organ on the Khol LP—big drifts of sound—and prettier, more song-oriented stuff on the solo record.”
Ulaan Markhor, on the other hand, is “more like a rock band." For that project, every track he makes starts with drums; often he’ll record hours of himself drumming and then sift through the results to find beats to structure songs around. By contrast, Ulaan Passarine is about arrangements. “A lot of what I do elsewhere is improvised, so Ulaan Passarine is an opportunity to work out different melody lines, and see how they layer over each other,” he says.
Smith’s next two releases will be his second Ulaan Markhor LP on Soft Abuse and a Ulaan Passarine album likely via his own label, Worstward. Beyond that, Smith plans to continue to simply hit record and see what happens. “A lot of it is like painting,” he explains. “You’re putting colors on the canvas. You erase things and you put more stuff on. Sometimes you get lucky and the first thing you put up works… sometimes it takes longer.”