Talking With Ghosts: A Séance With Ambersmoke

At the time of writing, Ambersmoke has little-to-no presence on the internet. They barely even glance at social media. Their identity is an esoteric mystery, obscured behind decaying photographs, or eschewed for re-appropriated images of the dearly departed. Instead, the being which we perceive to be “Ambersmoke” is a fragmented, disjointed phantom, whose form, consciousness, and volition are scattered across a boundless wasteland of cassettes, CD-Rs, zines, VHS tapes, and more.

Exploring Ambersmoke’s back catalogue is not an easy feat, even in the all-access age of the internet where an entire artist’s discography can be available with a single keystroke. Their archaic approach to releasing their music, often only available on fragile physical formats, promotes the lost act of discovery in music. Tracking down and exploring each of their limited releases is like brushing away the dust on an old photograph, uncovering repressed memories and feelings that have been locked away for years and years.

Some releases take the hyper-limited characteristic to the fullest degree possible. Some records are only limited to a singular copy, or in some cases, entirely unreleased altogether, leaving the listener with the tangible sense of absence that cascades through Ambersmoke’s music. The tape, CD, or music file you listen to is like a puzzle with missing pieces, and a feigning reminder that everything is impermanent, and will all soon decay.

Ambersmoke remains an elusive character in the pantheon of experimental music, more akin to a ghost than a personality. Little is known about them, other than their base of operations being in the Bay Area of California, the centre to a flourishing hub of like-minded experimentalists. Ambersmoke has never given interviews until now.


Over the years, you’ve been slowly encompassing a wide range of styles into your music. Weird folk music… psychedelia… is Ambersmoke growing into more of a tool for experimentation?

Ambersmoke has always been a tool for experimentation, honestly. The project started as sort of an in-joke between my friends and I and after the joke got old (which didn’t take long at all), I immediately began experimenting with just whatever ideas I had that didn’t fit musically into any other project. Lately I’ve been working on droney “ghost folk” and choral, almost spiritual, drone pieces.

Why choose to keep yourself anonymous?

I don’t really. I just don’t care. Lots of people know who I am, lots of people come up to shows and recognize me from Ambersmoke performances. I don’t try to hide my identity, you can easily find my name in a quick Google search. My name shouldn’t have any effect on the art.

Many of your records are super-limited releases. I feel like that goes beyond for more than just a lack of resources. Is there a statement you wish to make by releasing records in strings of ten, three, sometimes singular copies?

Sometimes it’s a lack of resources. You know, along the lines of “oh, I only have these 4 blank tapes and I want to put this out at my next show cos I have nothing else to sell”. Things like that. Other times it’s just a total pisstake. We (much to the surprise of many, Ambersmoke does have a revolving collective-esque lineup) decided a few weeks ago it’d be funny to put out a new tape every day, each limited to 1. It quickly proved too hard to accomplish, but the first tape ended up really cool so it’ll be released soon. Things like the “hand curiated foliage” in the recent box set happen just because we see things in craft stores, like small jars, and just think “wouldn’t that be ridiculous to package this with something?”. While Ambersmoke is a serious project, we don’t take ourselves very seriously all the time. I certainly don’t.

What kind of emotional spaces does Ambersmoke manifest in?

There’s no real answer to this question I think. Nothing I can easily name. It’s easy to say something like “sadness and despair”, but that’s not the case. It’s hard to explain.

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Do you feel closely associated to any nearby “scenes”? California has a rather large noise scene.

Not especially. I’ve been shunned by the majority of the people who have heard my music and at the last show, we played to maybe 3 people. Nobody talks to us, nobody really cares about what we’re doing. I’m not trying to be a part of any scene, I don’t care. We’re embraced by the Arcane Visions Collective up north and the Salope Cassette scene down here in southern California, but I don’t see Ambersmoke as really a part of either family.

Other mediums of art appear to play an increasingly more important role in Ambersmoke. Outline the importance of the non-musical aspects of your art, such as the visual design, performance aspects, physical releases, etc.

Ambersmoke has never really been a “band” or a sort of musical project. While the music is the primary artform, I feel the visual design, the tangible elements and the visual elements of live performances are equally as important. As I said earlier, while Ambersmoke is a very serious project, a lot of what I or we do is tongue in cheek. The artwork for Une femme est une femme is clearly a ripoff of Sacred Bones artwork, for example. It’s meant to be absurd or ridiculous. I’m not trying to rip something off and pretend like nobody notices. It’s the absurdity of it. There’s a lot of that in the packaging of these releases. It gets really over the top sometimes and that’s the point. It helps me convey the duality in the project, the balance of very serious musical works with ridiculous packaging, artwork or (less so these days) song titles.

Iconography from French films, Japanese art, nature and nostalgia is something that you appear to revisit constantly in your art. What is your fascination with these subjects?

I like French films because a few years ago I was really depressed and didn’t want to do anything so I laid in bed spending my time watching the most seemingly pretentious things I could get my hands on. There’s a lot of that in French cinema. The Japanese art stuff comes primarily from my adoration of Suehiro Maruo, which has influenced a substantial portion of my work. The rest of it is just because it works, honestly. I’m a photographer, it’s easy to take photos of flowers. Flowers look nice on a good black & white film. The subject matter itself is nearly irrelevant, it’s the feeling it invokes. I work around feelings, not directly with the subject matter.

Listeners tend to lump your music into the labels of “shoegaze, drone, black metal, post-punk, etc.” Do you reject these labels? Do you feel pigeonholed by listeners or critics?

I feel like nobody has really listened to my music. “Black metal”? “Post-punk”? I think like, did you really even listen to it? There are elements of all those genres you listed in my music, but there’s so much more. I don’t limit myself to one genre. I don’t work like “let me make a song in this genre today”, I write a song and whatever elements work their way in make the song. On the last record there were a lot of sampled house and funk beats under the heavy, doomy drums. Lots of tambourine. It’s not a black metal record, but everyone sure as hell tried to call it that.

That said, do you identify somewhat with the insular, “one-man band” character that appears numerous times in experimental music? Say, Scott Conner of Xasthur, for instance.

I see myself more like a loner Keiji Haino or Anton Newcombe. I like working with others, but I like writing and recording on my own. When performing with others, I prefer to let the musicians make up their own parts. The recorded material is that of a “one-man band”, but when others get involved, Ambersmoke is more of a true psychedelic group.

Do you believe in the supernatural?

Absolutely. The next album is inspired heavily by a few supernatural experiences that happened to us over the last few months. Even before then, the supernatural has had a lot of influence on me.

Are you fascinated by nostalgia?

Oh definitely. It’s a big driving force creatively for me. Ambersmoke lives mostly in the past, emotionally. Nostalgia is a concept that comes up a lot on just about every album.

Is “decay” an important element of your music? If so, please explain the importance of it.

Possibly the most important element. It led me to stop releasing music in digital formats, or at least cut back heavily. It bothered me that digital was essentially eternal and never degraded. I know analog formats are the cool thing right now, but I grew up with tapes. I grew up with VHS. Somewhere along the line, I realized that it was weird that the digital formats I’d become accustomed to never degraded. Not naturally at least. I’ve always been fascinated with analog decay. That’s how I want my music and my art to be experienced. I don’t want it to be eternal.

Do you worry about the future?

I worry about the present.


Wear Your Love Like Heaven is available now. Photography by Cameron Puleo.

This feature was powered by:

The Cure – Seventeen Seconds (1980)

Ambersmoke – Flowering Decay (2015)

Wilco – Being There (1996)

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CROSS SECTIONS: The heartbreak and conflict behind Xiu Xiu’s “A Promise”.

cararobbins-xiuxiu-0005The story of A Promise begins in a gay cruising spot in Hanoi. Jamie Stewart, whose eccentric extremes have propelled Californian experimentalists Xiu Xiu through all manner of indie trends over the past decade, found himself on vacation in Vietnam prior to the recording of the band’s 2003 sophomore album. A chance encounter with a young homeless man would lead to one of the most striking, controversial, and ridiculed album sleeves of the past decade.

Being asked for sex in return for money by the down-and-out young man, Stewart instead invited him to his hotel room. There, Stewart paid him to take his picture, his only attendant being a rubber baby toy which had been carried around with Stewart on his trip. He stripped, posed with the baby, took his money, and left. This absurd conflict between sex and human relationships, along with Stewart’s guilt towards the experience, served as a stimulus for the harrowing emotional palettes of the band’s formidable A Promise, which would launch Xiu Xiu to the height of indie rock infamy.

Cross Sections is a series which dissects cult albums with the help of their creators. Myself and Stewart pulled into a shimmering vegetarian restaurant on Baldwin St, Bristol to discuss A Promise, relationships, self-abuse, and the heartbreaking vow behind the album’s title. Read and listen along below.


“Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl”

Older fans will recognise this as a song from your previous band, Ten In The Swear Jar. Why choose to rework and open the record with it?

I wish I had a decent theoretical reason for picking that song. It was mostly for practical reasons. Ten In The Swear Jar was a band that nobody had heard of. We self-released one CD that was limited to about five-hundred copies and we never toured. It was a song that Cory McCulloch, who started Xiu Xiu with me… yeah, we both liked it and essentially didn’t want that song to go to waste! I also think the Ten In The Swear Jar version didn’t really suit the feel of the song with how it was arranged. More of a rock feel.

So it feels more at home here?

Oh yeah. I think that the Xiu Xiu version, to my ear, says what I think that song is trying to say.

And what is that song trying to say?

Cory and I used to live in this really terrible house. When we first started off the band we were obscenely broke. We lived in this house that was literally falling apart, not really like a punk house, more of a nerd house in the style of a punk house. Attached to the house was an apartment that was right above my bedroom window, and there was this young girl who lived in an apartment next door. She was gay and was dating an older woman from the neighbourhood, and I think the older woman was married to a man. Their relationship was completely secretive, and they’d sit above my window and be a couple. But they didn’t know I was there.

So, kind of a voyeuristic experience?

Yeah. Most of the lines from the song are things they had said to each other, and it’s an observation of their impossible attempt to have a relationship… their difficult existence. At the time it was very specific, but now to me it’s probably just about difficult existence in a more personal or general way, depending on what year it is, what happens to be going on… does that even make any sense?

“Apistat Commander”

What are the mentions of the Chinese names in the lyrics here?

“Chen” is Yvonne Chen, who was in Xiu Xiu at the time we were writing it, who co-wrote it. At the time we were real close friends, and “Wei” and “Huai” are her brother and sister.

Is the mention of the names used heighten the personal element of the songs?

I frankly don’t remember because this song in particular is more about suicide. [The names] are more there to illustrate what there is to lose from suicide.

Yeah, there’s definitely a sense of uncertainty in the lyrics in regards to suicide. It’s not very pro-suicide.

It’s more just dealing with it as a way of life. Not promoting it as a way out, but just as a way of just… dealing with it. It is an option, and thankfully it’s not something that is as big of a part of my life as it was then. But it was, at the time, a daily concern. Not so much now, thankfully.

How did you create the grating, mechanical sounds on the record?

Back then I think we only had two synths. Two shitty synths, and not shitty in a good way. We had a Yamaha DX21, which I think Cory was the only person in the entire world who could get some decent sounds out of it, and some other garbage synth that I don’t think anyone feels fondness for even now. Then we just ran them through distortion pedals. I think we had three distortion pedals at the time. This is literally the only shit I care about, just distortion pedals! One was a yellow MXR that I left in a parking lot at an airport, one was a crappy RAT. But the one cool one we had was a really cheap Danelectro called the French Toast. Really cheap, maybe around twenty-five dollars, and it had a horrible octave shift in it that couldn’t follow anything so it was mostly just random. I should get my hands on one of those again. That is a piece of garbage that is a wonderful piece of garbage.

“Walnut House”

This song has some of the most bizarre, vivid lyrics on the album, like “they have as many eyes as a pineapple”. But it’s juxtaposed with really grounded, direct phrases like “I am the dumbest bitch on the planet”. Did you aim to create this kind of disorienting dynamic when you were writing it, or was it more natural?

Again I’d love to say there was any theoretical basis behind this song. It’s a song about the nursing home my grandmother was dying in called ‘Walnut House’. It was a very surreal place, essentially a warehouse full of people with dementia whose bodies are falling apart. I think, if I remember correctly, a lot of the imagery was cribbed from books I was reading at the time, or things I’d hear people in the nursing home say.

Is that where the “don’t worry Mom” freakout at the end comes from?

Oh, that actually was some small attempt for me to console my Mom while she was watching her own mother die. As well at the time I was getting into some worrisome sexual activity, none of which she was privy to, but I think she was generally worried about the way I was living my life at the time. So it’s a very incongruous combination of literary references, my grandmother dying, and consoling my Mom.

Very similar subject matter to the This Song Is A Mess But So Am I record where all the songs are about his mother dying of cancer.

Oh yeah. Freddie and I are still very close friends.

“20,000 Deaths For Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths For Jamie Peterson”

I guess the obvious question is to ask who Eidelyn Gonzales and Jamie Peterson are.

This song isn’t really about either of those people. A lot of Xiu Xiu titles don’t necessarily refer to the subject matter of the song. Eidelyn Gonzales was someone who I, for lack of a better description, had a fuck-buddy relationship with, who I treated very, very, very badly, and in no uncertain terms took pretty horrible advantage of her, I think for a couple of years. Jamie Peterson was a percussionist I liked a lot but anyone barely knew. She played in a lot of Bay Area bands, lots of experimental stuff but nothing anyone would’ve heard of. But she’s a really good percussionist. Anyway, Eidelyn, I’m sorry I was such a shithead to you.

How much of the record was inspired by true events like that, and how much was more of an idealised fantasy?

So far the only constant about Xiu Xiu is that the songs are always about something true.

“Pink City”

How were the less-structured tracks like this composed for the record? This song sounds like someone having a million different mood swings mid-composition.

I was pretty out of my mind at the time so it’s entirely possible that’s what happened! Those were dark days. Very dark days. Yeah, this will just sound melodramatic, but it was without a doubt one of the most difficult and worst times of my life. It was a pretty miserable existence.

You mentioned taking inspiration from literature before. The lyrics here are quite violent and debauched, in the vein of, say, William S. Burroughs or J. G. Ballard.

I’m always really hesitant to be specific about explaining songs because it’s very different to what you’ve described to me, but I don’t want it to be what it’s about to you. Half of that song is about a book about the Balkans War, but the author of the book who was strung-out on heroin at the time of the Balkans War, an American guy. We never play that song live, so it’s kind of removed from my consciousness. We just never got around to it. Again, forgive me for being melodramatic, but [emotions] would never prevent us from playing songs live.

“Sad Redux O-Grapher”

Another old song, right?

We had two different versions of the song. One appeared on a 5 Rue Christine compilation, the label we were on, but I thought we could do a better version of it. But that song is about just liking a boy, and having that boy think you were an idiot. And him not being all that far off base. Again, this was a long time ago, so it’s faded from my memory slightly. There was this boy that I liked, I tried to get him to like me, and he thought I was stupid, and him being right that I was pretty stupid. As one does when they’re in that situation, feeling pretty miserable and hopeless, a fairly typical subject matter for a sad song.

This song fits nicely together with Walnut House. Did you think a lot about the structure of the record before putting it out?

I think that might have just been good luck on our part. We just wrote a bunch of songs, and then once we had ten, we decided we were done. We recorded in the same house as Knife Play, with the same people.

How did the configuration of band members in Xiu Xiu at the time shape the sound of the record?

For the beginning of that record, like I said, Yvonne Chen played on it. Once we started touring, she kind of excused herself since she didn’t want to tour. So it was mostly Lauren Andrews, Cory McCulloch, and myself. Lauren didn’t really write all that much, but she had a really excellent feel. She could play things that were incredible simple, but with a notable brutality and a real sense of space that was superlative. The exact right amount to my ear between notes, and particularly for that record since the songs were so sparse. She really played nicely on that one. The tension and release between playing and not playing. Music nerd things, but she was all quite good at it.

Cory was really instrumental in picking good vocal takes. At the time, the three things he was really fantastic at. One was keyboard parts that were extremely dissonant but also very melodic, and then making really wonderful and really musical feedback, and then serving as producer for the vocals. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone since who could produce vocals that well. We had been friends for a long time before, I haven’t talked to him in several years, but I really trusted him. It made it a lot easier to… open up and be comfortable. I could essentially say anything with him in the room. He knew me well enough to know if I meant it or if I was faking it, and he’d push me to mean it.

“Blacks”

Did you want this record to challenge the listener when you composed it?

It’s never something that we would ever do consciously. With this song, or any song, we try to get something out of the listener, without having any business out of what that something is. Again I don’t want to ruin what a song could mean for somebody else with what it means to me.

Do you have that in mind while writing? What a listener can take away from a song subjectively?

Absolutely. For me it’s always about something very, very specific. But it’s not important that that specificity is passed onto someone else. I hope they can appreciate that it’s about something specific, but as well being something personal for the listener. I don’t know if we succeed at it, but that’s what we’re hoping for. But as far as attempting to be challenging, we just create songs that sound good to us, and whether or not that is challenging isn’t up to us.

“Brooklyn Dodgers”

What were the outsider influences for this song in particular?

It was about my brother. My whole family at the time lived in the Bay Area, and fortunately my family now is a little more levelled out. In a state of crisis, to say the least, he decided he didn’t want to live there anymore and moved to New York somewhat unexpectedly. It broke my heart a little bit. I mean I don’t blame him! If I had as much guts as he had I’d have gotten out of there also. But he realised that he needed to get on with his life, rather than get mired in the disaster that was our family at the time.

“Fast Car”

So, the Tracy Chapman cover’s an interesting choice. It expresses lots of the same sentiments as the original songs on the album despite coming from a different era. I remember in our last interview you spoke about having a huge respect for pop musicians.

That song has always amazed me that it actually is a pop song because it’s one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard. It’s just a list of bad things that happen, and then it’s over. There is no happy ending to that song, which at the time, and forever more, is what life is!

I do think it’s quite ironic that the song that epitomises the whole record wasn’t even written for it.

Well, it was a humongous influence on us, obviously! When I was a kid, there was an MTV show called 120 Minutes that used to show “alternative” videos, and interestingly, that Tracy Chapman song was shown on it and was considered, at the time, an alternative, underground song. Probably because the subject matter’s so dark. It somehow became a light rock hit two years later with a very long-lasting life. That’s when I initially came across it, when I was really young.

So you have a strong connection to it for hearing it in your youth?

I think when I was younger I was too young to really understand what it was about. Like, there’d be that, and there’d be a PiL video on after that. It wasn’t until I was an adult and I was driving around when I was stunned by how incredibly bleak it is. We didn’t really think that much about it for the record, we just loved the song and wanted to say “thank you” to it.

“Ian Curtis Wishlist”

“When you tell me everything, I will take it too far”?

The specifics of it are that it was me being very foolish and unrealistic! And knowing I was being foolish and unrealistic, but not being able to stop myself from behaving in that way. It sounds very boring, but there was this girl that I liked, and she was just very polite, and was like, “no thank you, you’re… a mess”. I think at the time it was a realisation of what an incredibly fucking loser I was, and an astounding sense of loneliness and stupidity, but being aware that I was being stupid and lonely. Even then it was only very briefly that I had feelings for this person. It was someone who I made out with one time in a basement, and then just got completely, absurdly unrealistic about. It’s probably more just about feeling like an idiot, rather than just being hopelessly in love with someone specific. But it was a period of extraordinary idiocy, and I think I was at my wits end with how little things were working out. I couldn’t really stand myself, and was certainly not making it easier on myself.

The vocals of the song, again, have a sporadic, improvised feel. Some of the lyrics sound like they were ad-libbed.

As little as I remember about this record, I do remember recording for the vocals for this song pretty clearly. I was teaching pre-school at the time, came home from work, got incredibly drunk very quickly. Sat at my desk, which is odd, since one tends to stand when doing vocals. I put the microphone in front of me, I think I had written the words down on paper in front of me. It was a rather spontaneous idea to do it. Recording vocals is usually a trial for me and I have to work up the courage to do it. I just recorded it in two takes, then a couple of days later I went back, listened to it, then edited the two takes together. There were written lyrics, but I think it was because I was because I was so drunk there was a certain looseness to it.

One thing that’s just occurred to me right now is what that must’ve sounded like to my roommates! It was a very crowded house, and I think I just put on my headphones and made whatever grunting sounds made up that take! Normally I would’ve waited, but the people me and Cory lived with were huge assholes. I’m sure they felt I was an asshole also. It was a very hostile environment. Now that I think about it, I don’t think we made any attempt to curb any amount of noise that we were making. We were extraordinarily inconsiderate. But so were they, about other things. It was a lot of gross guys, kind of hopeless nerd guys, but mean hopeless nerd guys. People just did not give each other a break in any way. They probably just thought the worst of me.

Did your experience in Vietnam directly influence any of the songs on the record?

That happened a couple of years before we made that record. Using that photo wasn’t so much a reference specifically to the events of the record, but more of having the feeling of what was happening at the time. There was a very distinct emotional connection, but not any sort of chronological connection. It seemed like he had a lot of cigarette burns on him. Some kind of rotten abuse somewhere down the line.

Did you get any heat from the album sleeve? Did anyone refuse to stock it or put it out?

Initially we had the little orange square. It was a reference to Todd Solondz, a movie director who I like a lot, and was really obsessed with at the time. He did a movie with a sex scene that no one would show, so he put an orange box over it. So that was an homage to him.

To close, why title the album “A Promise”?

…It always depresses me to answer this question. I don’t mind saying it, but it’s really bleak.

My mother made me promise her not to kill myself. I am here today because of it. So, thanks Mom.


A Promise is available to stream and purchase from Kill Rock Stars. 

This feature was powered by:

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CROSS SECTIONS: Planning For Burial’s “Leaving”, and the inevitable passing of loved ones.

Thom Wasluck’s grandfather knew he was going to die soon. This somber, reluctant recognition of the ephemeral moments in which we live was the inspiration behind the Pennsylvania native’s  solo brand of bleak, guitar-driven drone and noise soundscapes, as well as his acclaimed debut.

Cross Sections is a series which offers a track-by-track commentary on the cult records that are surrounded in as much mystique as the artists that created them. In this first instalment, I sat down with Wasluck for an insightful narration of his 2009 sleeper hit, Leaving.


“Wearing Sadness And Regret On Our Faces”

So, what was the writing process for the first track here, was it one of the earlier songs you wrote?

It was the earliest song for the record, or at least the one that made me think “I need to write a record around this one”.

So this is one of the earliest Planning For Burial tracks?

Not even close. I think this was started in late December 2006 but wasn’t started to be recorded until early 2007. I had been writing material under the name Planning For Burial since August 2005 that I’d let my friends listen to or just throw up on Myspace.

What did the earlier versions of this song sound like? Did it change much before being recorded for Leaving?

It wasn’t so much that were earlier versions, the basic foundation of the song from the start is the very same. I just added and subtracted things as I went along. From what I remember there was a slightly longer intro with a reversed guitar part but it didn’t do anything to really add to the song. The basic foundation was recorded in 2007 for this song and I was layering and mixing all the way through early 2009 at various stages.

Do the lyrics take you back to a certain event/person/time in your life?

It’s not clear to me now what was actually the catalyst for the lyrics themselves, but I remember sitting on my bed playing guitar and singing along to it. I think maybe I was disillusioned to a relationship I was in that had lasted for a few years longer after this than it should have.

Is that how a lot of the lyrics on Leaving came about? Just coming to you somewhere out of the ether based on some transient feeling at that time in your life?

Yeah, I would say so. Most of the songs are barely a line or two long that I just liked to repeat. The overall idea of Leaving became wanting the sound of everything to show exactly how I was feeling during that time period, and it wasn’t so much based on the lyrics.

“Memories You’ll Never Feel Again”

The next track I always thought was a weird odd one out in the Planning For Burial catalogue because of the odd waltzing rhythm it has. It sticks out a lot since your songs usually have a really slow, crawling tempo.

This one started how a lot of my songs start, which is walking around this house strumming my shitty acoustic. So I eventually I brought it to the electric and looped it, and would run over and play drums along to it. I like playing in 3/4 a lot but it doesn’t always happen within my music. This song was also finished over the course of a year or two just working on it little by little as time went on. There were parts of other solos for it that were “better”, but the overall performance wasn’t exactly right to the feeling, so I kept deleting and replaying it until I got the performance on the record.

Did you lay the groundwork for a lot of this material just by looping riffs like that?

On this record it was working out parts from loops and then figuring out transitions to next parts. It was mostly so I could play drums along to them and write other parts where I used to do that with a 4-track and need to have a lot of the base figured out so I could record it and then write other parts on top of it. Being able to play along to something I had just wrote on the spot felt a lot more organic, and I could work with stuff for a little before I tried getting it to the point of recording. Though a lot of the other little things and layers that happened throughout time came about the old way just playing a long to what was recorded and figuring it out.

This song’s always reminded me of that one Pg.99 song that’s in 3/4.

Oh, definitely. I think that’s where my love of 3/4 timing comes from.

“Oh Pennsylvania, Your Black Clouds Hang Low”

So what kind of records were you listening to when you were writing “Oh Pennsylvania”?

I’m not really sure. I think the song has the metal stuff, drone and noise elements. I was obviously listening to a lot of doom and more riff based stuff but again i think it came out of me just coming up with the riff and loving to play along to it on drums.

What about the latter half of the song? Did that just come about through usual kind of organic looping and writing?

Yeah, I knew it needed to have different parts so I wrote that separately, then got them to work together before recording it.

What kind of emotions or feelings were you trying to convey with this sound? I mean, obviously, there’s lots of screams and loud guitars so it can’t be very positive.

I think the feelings are more in the extra things going on. The somber plucked parts at the end, the “crying” type lead guitar, the organ chords on top of power chords on the guitar…

So, if the feelings are in the little instrumental details, what does the main “sound” of the song mean to you? like, where did that song come from when you were writing from it, emotionally?

Sometimes you just want to play loud heavy things. Just being young and still feeling some sort of angst and aggression.

“Humming Quietly”

“Humming Quietly”’s main ‘riff’ has a post-punky vibe to it. Like a Peter Hook-style bassline but transposed for a doomy guitar. It sounds like something from Closer.

This was the last song I wrote and recorded for the album, same with looping and then building within the recording program. I finished it only a few days before I sent it off to be mastered. There are earlier versions that are a lot more thinner-sounding. I added some underlying drone for the first half and just did little things to give the song more oomph.

You’ve only recently started playing this live, right?

Yeah, I’ve maybe only played the song live twice still because it’s about figuring out how to get everything to kick in and line up the way I want them too without playing to a pre-recorded song.

Is that a common issue you have with songs from this record? Since they’re a bit more “studio”, rather than the tracks from 2012 to Desideratum which are more suited to play live?

Exactly. These songs were written essentially the same way with use of loops to help me write, but then assembled. I never actually use loops when recording. Everything is played 100% live regardless if the part is repeated a million times

Must’ve been a pain when you were recording the 16 min closer to your last record.

You don’t even know.

“We Left Our Bodies With The Earth”

So what kind of effects were used on “We Left Our Bodies…”? It’s a very guitar-driven track, just straight up fuzzy drones, sort of like Earth 2.

Yeah, mostly fuzz, and a little bit of delay on the lead guitar part. This was actually heavily influenced by Old Man Gloom’s Christmas album

Trying to go for that crunchy Kurt Ballou sound?

It was more about the riff itself. The ending drone section was accidental, things got caught in a longer delay. I keep a lot of “happy accidents” in my songs. This stuff was recorded live, exactly how you hear it just trying for something and seeing what would come out. Obviously there were other layers added on, but there were no click tracks so it had to be done by feeling.

“Being A Teenager And The Awkwardness Of Backseat Sex”

So, “Being A Teenager…” has become a weird fan favourite in your discography, which is kind of strange for an 8 minute drone which is mostly repetition, why do you think that is?

Honestly not sure. I almost didn’t put it on the album. For whatever reason I just didn’t think it was a strong enough song at a time. I know I’m mistaken now. The little ending section was added awhile later. There’s a lot of stuff going on this song that’s super hidden too, there are sections of playing a tape recorder with myself talking saying “is this everything you’ve ever wanted out of life” and rewinding it quick for effect.

Any more little details like that hidden in the record?

The opening sound of “Oh Pennsylvania” and the end is my voice. But I think its easy to get caught up in repetition and let it wash over you and have subtle extra things build up. I have said to a friend in the past the ending is like what I would imagine some acoustic artist from the early 2000s would do if they layered shit and had their crowd singing along. I wasn’t going for that sound, but it’s how it worked it out.

You should start doing that at shows so people can sing along. Anyway, speaking of singing along, anything you want to say about the lyrics?

It was written around the time my girlfriend at the time’s father died. He died super suddenly, and it was more thinking about [how] there isn’t much to life. But the title of the song also plays in too, because I like to do things with double meanings. Instant gratification isn’t always that great.

“Seasons Change So Slowly”

The outro dialogue of this track is probably one of the most harrowing parts of the record. Could you explain the significance of it?

It was honestly something I found on PostSecret years and years ago, but it felt completely right. It reminded me of a story my grandfather told my father and I when he was dying (which this whole situation was what birthed the name “Planning For Burial”) about his brother, and how he had loved this woman he had dated, and he went away to war and came back, and she moved on and he never stopped loving her. That story has always crushed me, and maybe has shaped the way I think about some of the loves of my own life. So when I saw that, it had hit a chord within me and I knew I needed to use it somehow. The lyrics to the song are super simple too: “I think about you enough to know that it’s too much”.

Was there a particular record or producer’s sound that you had as a reference when recording Leaving?

No, not at all. I have said it a million times, my number-one love since I was at least 5 was always music. I had begun collecting music since I was about 10 and I listened to so many different styles that its hard to pinpoint. It’s a culmination of being a lifelong music addict.

So Planning For Burial’s sound has always felt super natural to you? Has its sound changed much since you started recording under that name?

Yeah, I think some of the earlier stuff may have been a little straightforward metal, but I was also working on some of the slower, more layered stuff too. But it was always a progression, even when I was a teenager playing in shitty metal and hardcore bands, I was sitting home by myself using a 4-track, recording weird songs.

“Verse Chorus Verse”

“Dress me in my best suit, I want to look good in my coffin”?

How you want to be remembered when you die.

Would you be proud to be remembered with these recordings when you pass away?

Yeah. It’s one of those records, to me at least, that after being so far removed from it and looking back after time and listening that I’m proud of. Something that could’ve only been recorded naturally and organically, making music for yourself because its just something you do, then getting lucky people caught on to it. I could, and will, never be able to make this record again in my life.

Even without the context of being the last “proper” song on the album, this song has a very final, dirge-like quality to it. Was it inspired by any particular incidents perhaps involving a passing? I mean, so much of the album seems to be inspired by the passage of time.

I was told a very close friend of mine from high school had passed away, and a few years earlier when I moved away to college, her boyfriend was killed in a car crash. The day she died I recorded this. I played it out, and once the real drone of it kicked in I just sat on my basement floor with my headphones on, letting the drone die out, and thought about them and how I’d never see them again. I always swore if I went to a high school reunion-type situation, it would be to see the two of them. People lose touch over time but it doesn’t mean their passings are any less significant.

“Leaving”

So, the last track, is it just you on the organ? It feels like there isn’t any overdubs or anything, just a really natural, organic drone.

It was a synth into a few delays, recorded mono. No overdubs, nothing. The only reason it was recorded in mono was because I just set everything up super quick and needed to get it documented somehow.

Was there much of a writing process for this song, considering the immediacy of you wanting to “document” the sound?

Not at all. Maybe played it for a minute or two, stopped and got everything set up quickly, then went in, and then let a longer analog delay capture the ending drift.

Do you see it as more than just an “outro”, and more of an actual composition despite that? Usually intro and outro tracks can be more of an afterthought or a throwaway.

Yeah. Well it wasn’t a throwaway, but when I was listening back to the first sequences of the record it was helping me drift into sleep, And I kinda wanted the final track to take that idea home. So as an outro it felt natural.

Is that a common thing? Do you try to give your music an immersive quality that affects the listener in some way with your material?

I don’t really overthink my music too much. Again, it’s hard to think about Leaving, and what I was really feeling and thinking at the time. I was 22 when I started writing it, and I’m almost a decade removed from that person now. I didn’t have people asking questions about the album for many years after it was even released, so I never really had to think about it too much. It was a labor of love, because I was constantly working on it off and on for years without ever thinking anybody besides a friend or two would actually listen to it.


Leaving was originally released by Enemies List Home Recordings in 2009. It was repressed on 2xLP vinyl by The Flenser in June 2015. Purchase here.

Leaving is available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp.

Pity Sex: “It’s a really exciting time for independent music right now.”

Ann Arbor, MI’s Pity Sex are a force driven by intimate personal ordeals. Each of their songs reads as a visceral account of a tumultuous episode in a person’s life, laced with too-close-to-home minutiae. Over a handful of records and a ferocious touring regime, Pity Sex deliver these cathartic accounts awash in emphatic, melodic noise and propelled by raucous bass and percussion. I sat down with vocalist/guitarist Brennan Greaves at their final UK tour date at the Louisiana, Bristol to chat about the band’s latent success in the indie rock underground.

How do you tend to handle the songwriting process when you come together as a band?

It’s very collaborative musically. Getting together at the spot, showing each other ideas and sometimes just messing around until we hear something that catches our attention. We all know when a song is working and when it isn’t.

Have you tried to make a conscious change in your sound over the course of the band’s lifetime? Like, between the demo and Feast of Love there’s definitely a kind of darker tone that you adopt in terms of the moods of the songs.

Conscious? No. Every time we come together to write for a new release we’re in completely different places in our lives, which reflects in the music we write. I think it’s more learning to trust our instincts and find solace in the fact that as long as we’re genuine about our output, it will be progressive.

What kind of stuff are you listening to right now while you’re on the road?

Spotify just cancelled my account due to non-payment, so it’s mostly been BBC radio and whatever our fill in bassist has on his phone. A lot of top 40 pop and RnB.

You’ve just dropped a couple of tracks from a new project with Sean called Senpai. What was the impetus for launching this project?

Four Ann Arbor buds who have a long musical history together and wanted to try something new. Chris, formerly of the band Brave Bird, started writing some amazing songs and asked if Sean, Jorma, and I would help flesh things out. We’re very excited to see where this band can go.

You’ve done splits with Brave Bird and Adventures, any plans for any future split records or collaborations with other artists?

No plans right now but there’s plenty of bands/artists I would love to work collaboratively with in the future.

Do you think indie rock is oversaturated as a genre? Do you stand with the criticism that it suffers from too many rehashes of late ’80s and ’90s bands?

Honestly it’s a really exciting time for independent music right now. I look around at my peers and I see them doing amazing things completely on their own terms. The real criticism should be on music media writing in a narrow and reductive way. Instead of focusing on how bands are creatively blending their influences with what it means to be a musician in this day and age, they throw a bucket full of weak legacy act comparisons at the page, pat themselves on the back, and call it a day.

Pity Sex’s Feast Of Love is out now on Run For Cover Records.

INTERVIEW: Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum

This feature was first published in Weightless in May 2013.

Phil W. Elverum is the mastermind behind lo-fi folk projects Mount Eerie and The Microphones. Known for his uniquely stripped-down songwriting and instrumentation and tapestry-turning lyrical imagery, Elverum’s works bridge the gap between the natural and the modern world with dense drone passages and somber acoustic guitars, revealing a path covered in autumn leaves and bathed in spectral moonlight. Elverum graciously took the time to speak with us about his music, his writing, lo-fi recording, unknown music and his plans for the future.

You’re here playing tonight at the Buffalo Bar in Cardiff, how’s the tour going so far?

The tour’s great. It’s been very fun. We’ve been in Europe for 13 shows in the north mostly- Scandinavia, Norway, which I love. We had a lot of Norway shows, as well as Finland, Denmark, it’s very nice. Yeah, the shows are really fun. I have this band that’s new and special for this tour only and it’s very fun to play the music like this.

You released two albums last year, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar. What inspired their creation, since they’re probably the two most diverse Mount Eerie albums so far.

I’m not sure what inspired them. I was just kind of freestyling and experimenting a lot and making myself as open as possible to ideas and giving myself a lot of time. It was about two years of recording, two years of that kind of experimentation that generated all that stuff.

Do you feel they should be appreciated more as a double album or two separate pieces, or is it just a coincidence that they happened to be released in the same year?

No, no, it’s not a coincidence. They’re meant to be together, but they’re also meant to not be a double album, they’re meant to be two things that are related.

Like two sides of the same coin?

Kind of. But maybe not even that closely related. Like, not even the same coin. Like two coins next to each other. I just thought it was more interesting that way, it opened up a whole lot more aesthetic things that I could do, playing with the relations of things and contrasts and stuff.

In the past with albums like Wind’s Poem you’ve experimented with genres like black metal, others have been more withdrawn like Lost Wisdom and Dawn, now you’ve experimented with ambient and post-punk; where does Mount Eerie go from here?

I don’t know. I’m not trying to do a little of everything, that’s not my goal. I know it’s happening, but I’m trying to make a cohesive body of work, like when I die I want to be able to look back and see a thread through all my work, and I can see that, I’m happy with what I’ve done. It’s not a goal of mine to ‘keep them guessing’, I’m not going to do a jazz album or a hip-hop album next, but at the same time I’m open to inspiration from whatever form it takes.

Does that cohesion stretch all the way back to The Microphones?

Yeah, I think so! It’s all part of the same lineage, the same stream. I mean, it’s me, I made all this stuff so it’s linked. But in terms of intentionality in that linkage, I don’t know. I mean, who has the same intentions from when they’re eighteen to when they’re thirty-five?

Lots of your works have very strong imagery, in both the artwork and the lyrics; do you feel music should always have a visual accompaniment?

I do think that, but I think it’s more because of my generation or my age. My introduction to music was in a time when music existed as physical objects that you buy, that have by necessity a visual component, so to me that’s necessary. I don’t think that’s a fact anymore in the world we live in, music can be a minute long and have no visuals, or it could be a video or it could be a videogame. We live in weird times. For me in a lot of ways I’m a traditionalist, I want to make an album, I want to make a collection of sounds that’s forty minutes long and has a picture or a couple of pictures that go with them that help paint a picture of the music and create a more permeable world.

And that carries over to the physical releases as well.

Exactly. My way of thinking about making art and music is still very linked to the physical object. I want to make music that sounds good as music that can be a downloadable, ephemeral  digital file, but I feel that having the music as a record with the pictures and the booklet and some stuff, it’s almost an invitation to go deeper into the music, if you want to.

What do you think is the appeal behind lo-fi and home recording?

I don’t know. I record myself, I don’t record in quote unquote “real studios” but I’ve always done it that way. I never however had any intention to make it sound lo-fi, I’ve always done the best job I can to make it sound as good as possible, but at the same time I’m not interested in making things sound perfect, or how they’re supposed to. There’s a lot of possibilities with recording; when recording a drum set you can make it sound crazy! So I guess that comes off at sounding lo-fi or immaturistic, but there’s a lot of thought and planning going into it, and intention.

Tell us about Fancy People Adventures.

I started drawing cartoons with my little brother and my friends forever ago, everyone does that- well maybe not everyone, but we started drawing cartoons to house jokes just to document them, and we just kept doing it, then I made a zine, then I made a website, and there you go.

Fair enough. Do you have anything else planned for 2013 after the tour?

I’m putting on a festival in my hometown of Anacortes, it’s called the Anacortes Unknown Music Series, we do it every year, sometimes more than once a year, and this will be the twelfth year in a row. It’s in July, so I’ll have to work on that.

Will that just features P. W. Elverum & Sun artists or…?

No, no. I mean, I will play, Mount Eerie will play but it’s friends, and also people we don’t known yet. Unknown Music Series is the name, so it’s not cool stuff [laughs], hopefully things that will become cool later.

The more unknown the better!

Yeah! But it’s a small town, so there’s not like there’s a hub of cool people hanging around doing cool things, so we’re just a bunch of nerds entertaining each other. [laughs]

Thank you for speaking with us, Phil! Do you have anything you’d like to extend to our readers?

Hello. [laughs]

And finally, do you believe in ghosts?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t believe in anything except the physical world and even then probably not.

INTERVIEW: The Haxan Cloak

This feature was first published in Weightless in November 2013.

Eerily dense and hauntingly foreboding, The Haxan Cloak’s uniquely cinematic blend of dark ambient and noise has been crushing venues and unearthing the supernatural across the UK at the head of his 2013 tour of Europe. The Cloak was gracious enough to take time to speak with us before his Bristol show about his new LP ‘Excavation’, his recording process, and what music means to him.

You’ve just been playing at here at The Exchange with Eraas and Necro Deathmort, what else have you got planned for your tour?

Pretty much more of the same, but this is only the third gig into the new tour, so right now I’m just tweaking it and making it more physical. Just making it louder… better. [laughs]

Louder is always better! You’re also playing with Mount Eerie in Brussels later on in the tour.

Yes, I’m definitely looking forward to that! That’s on Thursday the 16th.

So, Excavation’s been getting some fantastic reviews, how have you been responding to that?

Pretty much in very quite awe. I was shocked at the response that my first album had, I never expected my second to even match up to that, and this one’s done maybe fifty times better. So the fact that I can come and play a gig where more than ten people will come is pretty cool for me.

I’m sure you have Pitchfork to thank for that.

[laughs] Yep. Thanks, Brandon.

On Excavation your music has been much more cinematic than on your previous release, do you owe that to any particular influences, perhaps Atrium Carceri or Lustmord?

No, not really. The artists I was listening to while making Excavation was pretty similar to the ones I was on the first record. But when I make music it’s more about restraint, it can be very hard to restrain your ideas, at least in my experience. With the first record I had a very distinct thing I wanted to accomplish, so I was stripping away all the layers back to get that, and with this one it’s more like, not necessarily ideas I couldn’t include on the first album, but showcasing a different side of my music, and also there’s a pretty distinct concept running through the record. Though I do like all the people you just mentioned.

How do you feel about the way ambient artists are often perceived as very mysterious or enigmatic by the music press? Do you feel you need to adhere to a certain type of image that reflects your music?

I don’t feel like I do because that’s not the way I was brought up to think about music. I mean when I first started making music when I was a teenager, I was in the DIY punk scene in my town, so that was very un-pretentious. Not that keeping your identity a secret is pretentious, but how so many people do it these days it’s become more of a gimmick, and there’s not many gimmicks about what I do, because, like, I don’t want to do anything else apart from this; I’ve always said that this kind of music is about honesty, really,  and a clear channel of perception between what’s going in in your life and what’s going on in your brain and what comes out. There’s no point masking that in the stream of bullshit that can come with it.

There’s already a few myths surrounding the recording of Excavation, namely how you supposedly sealed yourself away without sleep or food for days during the making of it. Was it really that extreme? How was Excavation recorded?

[laughs] I mean- it’s extreme, I’m a workaholic when it comes to my music. Many things suffered, my relationship suffered, my sanity suffered, but it wasn’t as extreme as locking myself away like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. If I’ve got something I want to say, that I want to do, I’ll stop at nothing to get it done. Music means everything to me and there’s nothing more important in my life, so why shouldn’t I just go balls deep?

Lots of your other ambient contemporaries have been drawn to more lavish recording processes, Tim Hecker’s last album was recorded at a church in Reykjavík, which is a big contrast to your home setup. How do you feel about home recording, it’s advantages and disadvantages as an artist?

I don’t think there’s any real advantages apart from recording in a place where you feel comfortable. You want to record in a place where you feel comfortable, it’s easier to record in a place where you don’t feel, say, the monetary stresses of working in a studio. But as for advantages, if you’ve made a record like I’ve just made you don’t want to go to sleep and wake up in the same room where all that energy’s been pumped out. So it would be nice to have a studio at some point. There’s more disadvantages than there are advantages, that’s for sure.

You said before the show you had use of a full studio during the recording process, tell us about that.

Yeah, I was given a recording studio for a week by the Britain Peer’s Foundation in Suffolk, in a little village called Snape. It was through the estate of Benjamin Britten, and they gave me a studio for a week to just record whatever the hell I wanted. They had a multitude of pretty much every orchestral instrument you could ever imagine, so I spent a week being a kid in a sweetshop basically. I had some timpani, big orchestral bass drums, ’The Mirror Reflecting (Part 1)’ is in fact just some huge eight-foot gong I had recorded in a room for a day and just pitch-shifted and processed and did various things with.

Are you ever going to release your Sunn O))) remix?

Oh, on the Resident Advisor mix? Err, probably not. Maybe. If I could coerce Stephen into saying yes. But I doubt that. [laughs]

Sunn O))) could do a split with The Haxan Cloak, you never know.

I’d have to convince Stephen with some nice wine.

Thank you for speaking with us! Do you have any words you’d like to extend to our readers?

Well, thanks for giving a shit, basically. Cheers!

The Haxan Cloak’s ‘Excavation’ is available now from Tri Angle Records. Make sure to catch him on tour if you get the chance!


INTERVIEW: Planning For Burial

This feature was first published in Weightless in December 2012. 

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Within the walls of Enemies List Home Recordings house some of the most enigmatic artists of today, producing equally strange, provocative and honest music. Among the ranks of projects such as Have A Nice Life, Afterlives and Giles Corey stands the wistful drones of Planning For Burial.

Mixing elements of shoegaze, drone, slowcore and post-metal, gliding synths evoke feelings of woeful nostalgia, while thick guitars construct impenetrable walls of regret and desolation. Thom Wasluck, the mastermind behind the one-man project, graciously took the time to talk to us about his music, the past, present and future.

Tell us about Planning For Burial. How did it come about? Did you have any previous musical endeavours that led up to it? 

At this point Planning For Burial has been going for almost 7 years as a recording entity though I never really let it out into the world until 4 years ago, and over the past two years I have focused more on playing live. I don’t believe it ever really started with a purpose besides it’s something I have been doing since I was a teenager recording late at night with my first 4 track cassette recorder.

The name of the project is rather poignant, and a pretty good representation of the music itself, what made you choose the name “Planning For Burial”?

The name was inspired by watching my grandfather become suddenly ill after my grandmothers death, watching a man I thought my whole life was emotionless just disintegrate without his love and how brutal it must be to know full well you are dying, making the arrangements, telling your son and grandson family secrets or just stories he hadn’t told in years, spending time with loved one, trying to get it all in before you go.

What kind of bands and musicians influence your music? Is it mostly drawn from shoegaze and drone artists, or something a little different?

I have always had a thing for melodies or music that feels warm and sad at the same time.  I know it’s cliché to say but I really believe my influences span almost three decades worth of constant music consumption, the music my parents played around me as a child, the music I found as pre-teen and in my teenage years through my twenties, my musical taste is become pretty vast.

Any particular artists, old and new, you’re enjoying at the moment?

Lately all I seem to listen to is Unwound’s “Leaves Turn Inside Of You”, anything Chelsea Wolfe, and “Treasure” & “Heaven or Las Vegas” by Cocteau Twins

Since the release of ‘Leaving’, you’ve put out a fair few EPs moving the Planning For Burial sound in a quieter, more meditative direction. What influenced this decision, and what will the sound evolve to in the future?

I think as far the EPs go they have taken that direction because some of them have been recorded spontaneously utilizing no overdubbing just throw a few mics up and hit record, I felt like in the last year I needed to get immediate feelings out rather than let them build. I’m not sure of the way it will evolve, because I also see two sides of what I am doing their is the quieter stuff but the live shows are have taken a much louder heavier tone.

You play a lot of shows each year, and have just finished your first few shows in Europe and the UK. What are your thoughts on touring?
 What’s it like to perform your music in a live setting? 

A lot of what I do is based on my feelings at any given time, and I seem to be getting more out of playing live than I have from recording lately.

What are your thoughts on home recording in music? 

Music should be about feeling, doing things and recording exactly when you feel them, not about setting up in some lavish studio for a set time frame, though that also has its advantages as well.

You have a new release coming out soon, a reissue of ‘Quietly’ on the prolific Enemies List Home Recordings label. Tell us about that.

It now contains all the songs that were written at the time that for sequencing purposes wouldn’t work correctly on the cassette format, it also contains songs from a limited cassette release called “Reminder” and some other unreleased tracks. Everything has been remastered, and the artwork has been reformatted by Niels Geybels for a bigger layout.

What have you got planned for 2013?

I have 4 different split releases across 4 different labels, I will finally record the written 2nd full length (though I can’t promise that one), there are some small weekend dates planned for early in the year and the possibility of relocating across the ocean.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Thom! Any closing words for our readers?

I’m just thankful for anyone that has given this project any time at all, I have been able to do some pretty incredible things with my life because of it and have met some amazing people as well.

Planning For Burial’s ‘Quietly’ will be reissued in early 2013 by Enemies List Home Recordings. In the meantime, listen and support via bandcamp, or catch him on tour!