Lines in the Desert, Steven R. Smith Interviewed
The Quietus, May 30, 2012
by Michael Begg
With his work emerging under a dizzying array of interwoven pseudonyms, it can be tough to get a handle on the work of the enigmatic Steven R. Smith. Speaking to Michael Begg about the range of his music, instrument building and deserts, he offers a window into his world.
A friend once told me about an American man, name of Smith, who spent his time wandering about the hinterlands of Eastern Europe and on into the Slavic countries. There, he would record and observe local musicians and make detailed notes about their instruments. Then he would return to America with new instruments, notes and field recordings, lovingly craft instruments like the ones he had seen, and then make a record. The tale seemed to be that he kept himself to himself, released the records quietly into the world, certainly with no trace of supporting them with live performances, then carried on about his daily business.
This was my introduction to the work – and many names – behind Steven R. Smith. He is an American guitarist, instrument builder and print maker whose substantial musical output over the past 15 years or so ranges from sun soaked, tumbleweed blown evocations of American desert blues (Old Skete), via psychedelic, screaming guitar superstructures (Ulaan Khol's Ceremony I, II, and III) to authentic and soulful responses to Eastern European and Slavic traditional music and instruments (Hala Strana's Fielding and Heave the Gambrel Roof).
The pattern of stretching personal boundaries and adopting new names to fit the work seems set to continue as Smith emerges once more in May with a new moniker, Ulaan Markhor, and a new eponymous album, to be released by Soft Abuse. Ulaan Markhor introduces a more forceful rhythmical presence to the desert lighting and tornado guitar workouts of his earlier Ulaan Khol releases.
Over a two week period the Quietus took up a dialogue with Steven R. Smith, seeking to push back some of the sand from the myths and the mystery surrounding this somewhat elusive artist, and gain some insight into the core sensibility that informs each of his equally compelling musical guises.
Would you care to enforce, enhance or dispel this biographical sketch?
Steven R. Smith: Well, I must say I like your version better! Unfortunately the truth's a little more drab. Around 1995 or so I did spend a month travelling around Western Europe and did make it as far as the Czech Republic and parts of Eastern Germany, but did not get to Hungary or Romania as I had hoped to do.
But it was in Prague that I saw a small trio of musicians playing on the bridge there with some traditional instruments (a hammer dulcimer, a bouzouki and a violin if I remember correctly), and they were going at some traditional folk tunes with some gusto. Kind of raw and I was really quite intrigued, kind of thinking that there's something at work here that was compelling. Prior to that, I should say, I had seen a show in San Francisco by Dog Faced Hermans and they had busted into a Romanian folk tune during one of their songs, but done their style - really fast and angular, man were they an amazing band - and when they dropped that into their song, it's like something sort of clicked for me right then and there. That was where I first sort of 'got it'.
What was it that resonated so strongly with what one has to presume was a pretty alien culture?
SRS: I think it must have been purely a musical connection, because I didn't know that Dog Faced Hermans were going to play that Romanian tune, I didn't have the record yet - just went to see them play a gig. In this song (it's called 'Jan 9') the guitarist sort of wandered off while the rest of them continued playing, and he came out with an electric viola and they just ramped up into this folk melody, and it just sort of all made sense. I didn't know it was a Romanian tune, it could have been anything, but I just knew right away, 'that's the stuff right there, this is something interesting'. Those melodies that are sort of inherent in this traditional music - and I don't mean to make wide generalities here because we're talking about a large geographical area with many different cultures - but generally speaking those melodies, the scales, the emotions they represent really resonate with me.
I did track down a lot of traditional recordings of this music but it was through libraries, the Smithsonian, record stores… Not quite as glamorous as observing local musicians. And, yes, I did build some instruments to use - the hurdy gurdy is the main one, but also a spike fiddle - both of which I still use occasionally today. They proved to be really pretty useful instruments even outside of the Hala Strana stuff. I also would just build anything that made noise — instruments made out of amplified springs; a large baritone psaltery; a xylophone made from spoons; a marimba made out of driftwood.
Most of these looked pretty ridiculous, but on a good day they recorded well. My first attempt at the hurdy gurdy, sort of the prototype, was actually carved out of a crappy acoustic guitar and sort of duct taped together, with a wheel that I cut out of wood by hand so it was sort of lopsided. Primitive doesn't even begin to describe it. To play it you'd have to use bungee cords to strap it around your waist, otherwise it would just careen off your lap when you cranked it. It was a beast. The second and current one came out much better, although it is still a very temperamental animal and some days it just won't cooperate no matter what you do. I've heard even professional hurdy gurdies can be like this so this is just something you have to accept. You kind of have to approach a hurdy gurdy on its own terms. All of this was mostly out of necessity, those instruments are hard to find and expensive. I also liked the aesthetic of it just being so homemade and rough. That always appealed to me.
Did you formally train as an instrument maker or was this an organic growth from curiosity? A good book? Financial necessity?
SRS: Oh no, god, if you could have seen some of these earlier instruments. I've gotten a bit better at it, take a little more time to sand the rough edges, slap some lacquer on it, but it was just sort of like, “fuck it, I can build that!” and of course, I can't build that, but I'm stubborn and you come up with something that's gonna make some noise.
A sense of place and space is what hits one first about the Hala Strana records. One has the immediate sense of coming in to contact with someone who is steeped in the hand me down wisdom of musical generations rooted to a specific place. What sets you apart in in this respect is that depending on what guise you are recording under the places can be very different, yet there is no loss of authenticity. The Steven R Smith records, Old Skete, for instance, seem similarly charged with tradition, and roots, and seem located within a specific geography – but it is a very west American geography.
SRS: Yes, I think I know what you mean and I do agree, although I think much of it is subconscious. I don't think I ever mapped that right out directly, but after doing a couple records you start to see a pattern and realize that this is a reccurring thing. Even if you look at the cover artwork for my solo records, all of them, no matter how abstract the artwork is, seem to feature some sort of a landscape, a horizon line. I am always brought back to the horizon line, and I would guess maybe that could come from this sort of idea of the American west, it's sort of ingrained in the general culture here. I understand that and I am very much drawn to the desert.
Here in Los Angeles, the Mojave is just a couple hours away. But I think even more directly, it's more of an emotional terrain, an internal landscape that's coming out. You know, this sort of idea of the wasteland is really a very potent image for me for some reason. And although that may seem a bit depressing or emotionally barren what I'm picturing is more peaceful, it's a clean slate, a fresh start.
That sounds pretty optimistic.
SRS: Well, this sort of imagery must be some sort of consolation to me or something because I'm not naturally an optimsitic sort of person, I'm riddled with anxiety and struggle to get through things like many people.
Do deserts generally appeal to you?
SRS: I haven't travelled to any other desert region, other than out here in California, so it's hard to say. I'm certainly drawn to the idea of the desert. It's sort of like when you are on the phone or back in school and not really paying attention and you find yourself doodling on a pad of paper - what comes out? For me it's always this sort of sketch of a barren, horizon line landscape, and these sort of wrecked structures or cities, just like on the album covers. It's what comes out and I don't really question it much. My guess is that this music is coming from the same place as the doodling on the pad of paper. It's not intentional, but if you're playing honestly and without preconceived ideas then what comes out is sort of what's humming down deep in there all the time. I guess for me it's this sort of barren vista.
The Hala Strana stuff was coming from a different place, literally and figuratively. You're dealing with traditions from a different geographic area, different melodies and styles, you're dealing with the past and the present, and you're dealing with these ideas and concepts, this sort of emotion representing the geographic area which may or may not even be accurate. And I know I definitely had a different mindset when I was doing those records. My interests at that point were just totally absorbed by this traditional music so what came out was hopefully somewhat authentic, meaning it wasn't just some pose or co-option. I was trying to have a dialogue with this music and tradition. I was trying to give it the respect it deserved. I'm well aware that it was not “authentic” Eastern European traditional music and I never, ever intended it to be that, but what I mean by authentic is that the music was an honest expression. It came from the right internal place.
I think the Ulaan Khol stuff relates to this too. To me, it still works as a landscape but it's more dense, more cluttered, more piled on top of each other, there's less space. Even the way it was constructed, just the recording process is a sort of architectural process, at least the way I have to do it. Often times with overdubs, you're layering and building on top of things and trying to leave or create space in other places - you're mapping a terrain. Plus I used a lot of phaser and fuzz pedals on those records. You can't go wrong with that.
I think it's fair to say that without a fuzz pedal no landscape is complete.
SRS: Oh yeah, we could do a whole article just on fuzz pedals, easy.
The process for many of your recordings does seem to comprise a dialogue between internal and external terrains. The process begins with you preparing a space – the drawing of a horizon and placed objects to offer substance and perspective – then the architectural process of building appropriate structures in that prepared space.
SRS: Yeah, I think that would be right. I mean, I don't really know what I'm doing. I very much try to keep everything sort of intuitive, but looking back on it, yes, I like that idea. That makes sense.
Does the isolation from your San Francisco musical connections trouble you at all now that you're based in LA? You seem equally comfortable with working alone as you do working with others.
SRS: Well, I should get out more, you know. I have hermit-like tendencies and too much of that is probably not the best. I understand that. Left to my own devices, I'd just happily stay in the back room working by myself, and it's sort of gone that way more recently. I'm in a sort of new spot though with becoming a father in the last few years. Trying to balance all that, just finding the time to work on music is a struggle and is often times done piecemeal on the fly. I'm not in a situation right now where I could even commit to a regular collaboration within a group, so you just keep moving forward best you can.
I did want to ask more generally about the “low profile” you maintain. Are you genuinely unconcerned by the degree to which your work finds its way into the world?
SRS: I'm not unconcerned, but I'm definitely less concerned than some other musicians seem to be. I do put a lot of effort into having the records come out. I want people to hear them and hopefully enjoy them. And I love doing the handmade artwork and chapbooks that have come with some of the releases. That takes a lot of time and effort to hand print those and assemble those. I love doing that kind of work. That's the important thing, for me. That's what I want to spend my time doing.
But yeah, I'm not really helping my cause much, am I?
The structure of much of your work, in keeping with desert music, seems sympathetic to meditative trance – the repetition of patterns, the slow assembly and disassembly of structure, the drones, the cyclic, rhythms growing progressively more urgent over long stretches of time. And yet externally, there is a strong physicality. You can feel the bite of the strings on fingers, you can hear the hurdy-gurdy breathing, you can smell the wood.
It is perhaps no wonder that I read many of your records as being situated somewhere between Popol Vuh's early mystical workouts and Michael Gira's unforgiving, unrelenting, unyielding slogs. Very different artists, but both using musical force to ascend, escape, or in Gira's case annihilate the corporeal body. Is this a continuum with which you would identify?
SRS: Yeah, definitely, I'd agree with that. I love both of those groups and I saw Swans close to the same time that I saw Dog Faced Hermans. That Swans show, man, it was heavy in all the right ways, and it was transcendent. It was really something. Coincidentally, that period is also when I first started seeing those Herzog films and discovered Popol Vuh—another group that just spoke to me for whatever reason. I love Daniel Fichelscher's guitar playing, so lyrical.
You know at that time, for me it was say, 1993-96, I was in my early twenties, and that's just when all these things started coalescing. I'm not trying to get nostalgic here, because this is old stuff and nowadays it seems all this music is so easy to find, but I guess that time period for me is when a lot of whatever trajectory I'm on was really being formed. You know, that's when you're putting it all together and figuring out what you want or need to say. And that's when I discovered all that stuff, musically. Everything was opening up for me, whether it's free jazz or avant-garde film, modern composers, obscure folk music, etc. etc. and you know, you try and make sense of it all and make some music.
It's interesting that you say coalesce, regarding what is clearly a broad pallette of influences and touchstones, because that suggests drawing the disparate elements together into a single, rich broth. Yet, you seem to have chosen a path of multiple identities; Hala Strana, Ulaan Khol, Thuja, Mirza. That pattern seems set to continue with your new record, under yet another new name – Ulaan Markhor - coming out in May.
SRS: Confusing, eh? Ulaan Markhor is sort of an offshoot of Ulaan Khol, I guess, but it's got more rhythmic elements involved, drums on every track, a lot of percussion and less guitar wankery, but it's still sort of relating to Ulaan Khol with the fuzz textures and some heavier elements. Mirza and Thuja were groups…they were improvisational groups with strong personalities involved. Mirza was sort of a really noisy psyche band, very loud, whereas Thuja was much more delicate and very quiet. Thuja used all sorts of non-instruments and hand made instruments and field recordings, we played and recorded in spaces where the environment played an important role in the process.
The solo-based projects (Ulaan Khol, Ulaan Markhor, Hala Strana, SRS, etc.) I see as being all on differing parts of a continuous line, with maybe the quieter, sparse pieces being on one end (the solo SRS material) and then moving through more acoustic and structured material (Hala Strana) and then sliding down to more heavy and dense music (the Ulaan Khol stuff). Just different spots on the line. I wish, and am trying, to widen that line out even further and try and push this music into further places, other tangents...
Not always easy to do.