The Wire. Issue 219; May 2002
"Trees have ears"
by Jim Haynes
"Photos of a band don't really make sense to me," declares Loren Chasse of the Jewelled Antler collective of California avant rock and improvisation ensembles, after resigning himself to a photo shoot in his Mission district apartment in San Francisco. "Neither do descriptions of how things were recorded and the gear that was used. All it does is take away from somebody's imagination." Indeed, a certain degree of fancifulness is crucial to appreciating the aesthetic of the Jewelled Antler collective with its revolving membership across various projects such as Thuja, The Knit Separates, The Blithe Sons, The Skygreen Leopards, The Birdtree, and The Child Readers. The Convoluted paths for each of these projects are all marked by the unwavering quest for adventure and spontaneity, not simply with art but with the world at large. As Chasse says of their working methods, "We wanted to make recording an enjoyable activity, make it like a picnic."
The Jewelled Antler collective originated as part of the expanding activities of the improvisational ensemble Thuja which is comprised of Chasse, Glenn Donaldson, Rob Reger and Steven R. Smith. On the surface, Thuja operates within the aesthetic realms of psychedelic improvisation carved out by Japan's Taj Mahal Travellers with their 70s alchemical mantras, or Jackie-O Motherfucker with their nomadic proclivities. But Chasse is quick to counter, "It's funny that we get likened to all those bands, but AMM is the band that we most think about. Not that we necessarily sound like them. As far as the principle of making music is concerned, we're most aligned with AMM than with the Taj Mahal Travellers, with these extended jam things. I don't really identify with that kind of music making. We may sound like that in the end, but I think it's more like this AMM practice. It's totally about being in the moment. That's what's so compelling about it: there are four people in a room who are really listening to each other. There are so many of these bands who improvise which is just noise, and I can't really believe that they are really listening , everyone is playing in this vacuum or this void, just bashing."
Along with the concentration of pure listening, Thuja attempt to push their music completely into a realm of fantasy, imploring the listeners to use their imagination to fill in the visual, textural and olfactory blanks that Thuja conjure with their incarnations of sound. While guitars, piano, drums and organ are instrumental within the process, they take great care to surround themselves with cluttered branches, piles of rocks, succulent plants, numerous candles, rusted motorcycle rims and other elements from their surroundings both natural and urban. Keeping true to the group's name, which is the genus of a North American cedar, Donaldson explains, "An analogy that we instantly saw in it was that Thuja sounded like some weird naturally occurring thing. It's so organic that it feels like how a forest might feel, with stuff falling or animals rustling." "It's obviously a fiction," Chasse continues. "We're not denying that we use guitars and drums, but it's a poetic thing, emulating organic processes. It represents the atmosphere captured in Rob's warehouse. We'd play there on late Sunday afternoons, just drinking tea and there was this murky light and all these plants."
Although like performances have been few and far between for Thuja, they recently played as a trio (Steven R. Smith currently resides in Los Angeles) as a part of Greg Weeks' Traveling Plague revue in the shoddy confines of San Francisco's Edinburgh Castle. Unconcerned with the squalid din of thise parked downstairs at the bar, Thuja enjoyed their own private ritual of quiet dronescraping, as Chasse ground and tapped handsized rocks through primitive electronics to arrive at a bristling mass of textural washes, while Reger aimlessly spun a skateboard wheel hooked up to an amplifier and sporadically shook jarring bursts from his guitar. The most beguiling part of their condensed set occurred when Donaldson stopped bowing his oud and began slashing his bow across the mass of dried branches that sat in the middle of the stage. "There's the meditative quality of trying not to have a musician's ego and a non-playing," Donaldson says. "You erase yourself and when you hear it back, you're not sure what your contribution is, but definitely feel a part of it. There's no meaning to it necessarily, but it's getting into an intuitive state that is totally rewarding." "I feel like I did some weird yoga," Chasse adds.
Thuja began as a logical extension of the heavy, space-rock mantras conjured by Mirza, Donaldson and Smith's previous outfit. Mirza's dissolution in 1999 was a culmination of two of Mirza's members moving away from San Francisco, a desire to pursue new ideas towards quieter, acoustic based music, and the physicality of the "MC5/Stooges Detroit train wreck style" that was taking a toll on then percussionist Smith, who had wanted to return to his favored instrument, the guitar. Donaldson and Smith had asked their old college friend Reger to join them in an Improv group. As for Chasse's introduction to the group, Donaldson recounts, "I had seen Loren play before in Ohm-A-Revalator and was blown away, because he was playing completely non-rock drumming in this sort of rockish band. He had contact mics on his drums and he was scraping the cymbals. I thought, `That's what I want a drummer to do!' I was imagining there being drums, but sometimes you have a drummer and he just wants to play beats. So you have to rock out so the drummer doesn't get bored." Fortunately for Donaldson's then unrealized project, Chasse's attitude synchronized perfectly: "That's the shit that bored me about playing drums, playing beats."
Culled from hours and hours of minidisks and four-track recordings, Thuja's recording sessions have produced only two releases, The Deer Lay Down Their Bones (tUMULt) and Ghost Plants (Emperor Jones), though they have sculpted a handful of unreleased albums from the backlog of material. The Deer Lay Down Their Bones (1999) slowly rotates through Reger's warehouse space, at times closely investigating various scrapings, grey noises and finely plucked notes, then pulling back to capture the whole sound of the group with the loose meanderings through a pleasantly pointillist piano, mellow high lonesome guitar duets and modulating intervals from a organ drones rippling with tremolo. The album is so thick with an opiated haze and fleeting impressions of psychedelia, free jazz and Industrial drones wrapped up in a lo-fi version of 4AD's classic etherealism, it's hard to believe that the group were just drinking tea during those sessions. Ghost Plants (Emperor Jones 2002) finds Thuja also trying to make the sound of their record much less recognizable, but strangely more melodic, by withdrawing much of the piano which had been so present on their debut, instead building amorphous tunes from delicate clatters and environmental hum.
Outside of Thuja, both Loren Chasse and Steven R. Smith have developed impressive bodies of solo work, although on different paths. Occasionally working with Brandon LaBelle as id battery, and also with this author as Coelacanth, Chasse situates his work in parallel to the `lower case' and `microsound' factions of minimalism, yet he purposefully avoids the digital sheen so often found within those regions. Consciously considering the metaphor of his array of primitive microphones as ears, and thus as extra, sensory appendages to his body, Chasse recontextualises field recordings and contact mic amplifications of tiny events to examine the poetic properties of environmental (both manmade and natural) phenomena filtered through the body. Chasse's forthcoming release on Anomalous, Hedges of Nerves, is his best work yet, with a keen sense of textural similitude and a subtle application of lilting melodies. Similar in intent to Francisco Lopez's Untitled 92 (based on vinyl run-out grooves) and Reynol's post-Fluxus classic Blank Tapes, Hedges of Nerves bristles through tidal fluctuations of vinyl surface noise accompanied by recordings of campfires, shortwave static, surf and textural rubbings of fabric. Chasse counters these washes of details with slow moving calliope melodies that emerge from the quiet noise as distant foghorns.
While talking with Donaldson and Chasse, they ask if I have heard their colleague Steven R. Smith's work, and I respond with the offhand remark that it sounds like Blixa Bargeld covering Swell Maps instrumentals. Both of them laugh at the statement, as I appear to have stumbled across two of Smith's biggest influences. Smith concurs from his home in Los Angeles, "I'm glad you picked up on the Blixa guitar thing and those Swell Maps instrumental pieces. No one really mentions those in reviews, and to me it's so obvious that those are reference points that I keep returning to." When discussing Einsturzende Neubauten, little attention is given to the guitar bravado that Bargeld provides, with his gritty, unkempt scribbles as personalized flourishes within Neubauten's orchestrations of collapse. Smith has refined those Bargeld guitars into revelatory scores of bittersweet leitmotifs and sublime crescendos that majestically wax and wane throughout his albums, in particular Lineaments (Emperor Jones 2002), which effortlessly waltzes through a cinematic version of psychedelia.
For the Jewelled Antler collective, those notions of non-linear trajectories and spontaneous revelations are not confined to improvisation, as their other manifestations display an idiosyncratic pop sensibility. The flagship ensemble for these pop adventures is The Knit Separates, a project front by the boyishly charming Jason Honea. Speaking with a jovially quick banter, Honea articulates The Knit Separates' confluence of spontaneity and pop: "There's a reliance and resignation about the Improv element that dictates that the music is just going to go where it wants to go. Where I get to have my steak and potatoes is that The Knit Separates sound like what a kids' band might sound like. I've always loved that schtick, that's why I've always loved The Birthday Party in how they draw from this boyhood imagery and those semantics and semaphores that are so initially strong to you."
The Knit Separates began when Honea was fronting the legendary West Coast hardcore group Social Unrest in the mid-80's, merely as an idea to start an "a cappella Improv thing". After exploring avant folk and brief encounters with improvisation in a post-punk context with ex-UK Sub Nicky Garrett in 10 Bright Spikes, Honea moved onto a more complete, albeit tangential, realization of that original idea through The Knit Separates with the help of Donaldson, Smith and Mark Williams, all members of Mirza at the time, and more recently Chasse. With a primitive Phil Spector beat, a crisp guitar jangle, and an infatuation with 50s cruise music, Honea's voice soars with all the emotional strain and melodramatic inclination found in Stephin Merritt's songs for The Magnetic Fields, though The Knit Separates shine through extra layers of dirt, odd military histories, bruises and sloppy kisses with more than a few strains of antisocial punk behavior. However absurd and juvenile The Knit Separates appear, Honea is incredibly sincere about his project.
"I take the songs really seriously," he attests. "It's fun making them and I'm very proud of them. I guess I don't really understand why people have aversions to them, as they sound like blatant emotional statements like any other kind of song could have. But then people have to point out to me that they're as long as an eighth grader's attention span, and some people can't get past the tones and the recording and the voice is way over the top. When I take those points individually, I realize that how I got to accepting them was very serious, with lots of trial and error. The music isn't a random attempt to be absurd and silly. You've got to have the brains and the wit to evolve as a person and a personality where you are smart enough to represent that to people. Most people are completely happy making a record that references all of the records in their collection, but to have the savvy and ability to create songs which are horrific and humorous with all kind of images going by, it takes a really intelligent band."
While Thuja and The Knit Separates are concrete projects with their own aesthetic and conceptual agendas, Jewelled Antler acts like a collective with the much lesser known projects The Skygreen Leopards, The Birdtree, The Blithe Sons and The Child Readers, which began mostly out of the cross-pollination of various personalities and the decision to build upon ideas, rather than force them awkwardly into a pre-existing group. For Donaldson, each of these groups "are like little novels or short stories, where you populate it with songs and instrumental ideas and configurations of people. I just get really excited about a band name in my head. I just imagine the whole band and what it might sound like, and how I might accomplish something that would have this certain feel. Like The Birdtree, I just did it because I had these collages and there needed to be a band that goes with these collages." The work of The Birdtree is solely attributed to Donaldson, yet he chooses not to call it a solo album, rather a group with just one member. The Birdtree's only recording, Orchards and Caravans, is a primitive, British folk infused psychedelic album recalling the song based work of Scottish eccentric Richard Youngs. The album's delicacy and emotional tenor is most pronounced on the fuzzy organ tune "Everyone Of Us A New Leaf", which finds Donaldson's reverb soaked voice straining for a saddened melody just above his range. It's one of the most beautiful songs that few will get a chance to hear, as Orchards and Caravans is one of many made-to-order CD-R pressings released through the tiny Jewelled Antler publishing house, complete with Donaldson's collages of bird-headed ninjas picking flowers and dayglo magic marker radial spokes on the CD labels. For Donaldson, "There is something special about us doing it. With each one I make, I want someone to hear it; whereas you get that box from the manufacturer or the label and you don't give a shit as to where they go, as long as you get copies for your friends."
The Skygreen Leopards, which finds Donaldson working with Donovan Quinn, also take the route of psychedelic revisionism, but stroll like carefree minstrels through their wistful impressions of the 60s, rather than with The Knit Separates' mythological bombast. Jangling guitars, affected breathy vocal duets, and colorful solos ring throughout the Skygreen Leopards' mini-album She Rode The Pink Gazelle And Other Stories, with plenty of references to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and T-Rex. Quinn, with his rural American drawl and unsophisticated mannerisms, initially appears as an unlikely member of the Jewelled Antler bunch. Yet he has proved to be a formidable pop improvisor during their sessions, which came about after Quinn responded to an online posting from Donaldson looking for likeminded musicians interested in the Fall and Durutti Column. Donaldson openly marvels at Quinn's instantaneous creative process with his reams of poems, books and songs that he has squirreled away in his trailer parked on a ranch in Walnut Creek, a distant suburb in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Quinn is mutually appreciative of the Jewelled Antler experience. "I've played with different people, and to tell you the truth I usually hate it," he states. "I love music, but I don't generally like playing with musicians, because that can turn it into work, when I don't see it that way. Glenn and Loren are really good at making it a thing where you're involved in making good music and it's not schoolwork. I really can't stand working with musicians who would want to make out all of these charts and having to memorize these charts. I would always stray from it anyway."
Quinn's notion of music as play and not work is also found in The Blithe Sons and The Child Readers, two projects which take their cue from Chasse's comparison of recording to a picnic. For the Blithe Sons' second recording, Waves of Grass (2001), Chasse and Donaldson hauled a portable Casio SK-1, a couple of little nine volt amps, melodica, a guitar and some bells deep into the confines of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, to make a quiet recording outdoors, with the wind coursing through branches and squawking seagulls audible amidst The Blithe Sons' pastoral dronings. Pairing Chasse with Honea, The Child Readers push these outdoor recordings even further, as Chasse explains, "Child Readers is from recordings that Jason and I made while driving around, taking hikes or camping. We always have a recorder and something happens. Jason would be strumming around a campfire and I would be playing a harp, and that would be one weekend. The next weekend, I would have that cassette and we would be driving around listening to the cassette, and Jason would start singing over the cassette in the car. I'd have the mic and a minidisc player to record. That was our studio, that's our overdubbing. Most of it is him singing or playing a guitar line in the passenger seat of the car with the tape amplifying, and that's the mix. I'd be driving with my little Walkman earphones on, trying to get the mic in place where the music is balanced in a cool way with his voice, but it has this shifting retarded quality towards it." With all of the abstracted buzzings and environmental din working their way alongside Honea's voice and folkish strum, The Child Readers end up sounding like an improbable hybrid of Jandek and Francisco Lopez.
The future for Jeweleed Antler looks forward to even more grandiose adventures into spontaneous sound construction and unconventional songwriting, alongside more baroque visual displays. Honea postulated about bringing The Knit Separates into the realm of film making, and Chasse sees Thuja becoming a sonic wunderkammer: "We keep toying with the idea of a Thuja Museum. We want to do a show with out friends' art and found objects and tables with cabinets of curios, paintings, shells, branches, and rusted objects, just recreating this weird gallery and the band playing these objects."
"I keep joking about releasing a piece of log with lichen on it," Chasse concludes. "I want it to be a Thuja album. It's almost Buddhist, when you achieve the ultimate music, it's not even sound any more. It changes medium. It's transcending the body and the body in this case is music and that's the reference. So for it to transcend itself, it has to become something else."