Swinging Modern Sounds #19: One Recent Example of Talent

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“Talent” is from the Greek for a certain weight of gold, because, I suppose, people who had a lot of it seemed to be metaphorically wealthy.

Here’s one example I encountered recently: at Christmastime, my nephew, finding himself in the perennial underfunded condition of most college students, decided to rip me copies of a couple bands playing around Bard College, where he’s a senior. One of these CDs, by a sort of evolved prog/noise/folk band called sTickLips, really struck me hard—in that way that I associate with discovering something. It’s so rare that one has this experience of hearing something that really sounds new. So new that no one else knows about it yet! I love the feeling. Nothing is better! Talent is enthusiastic. Inexplicable and so singular.  Talent makes you feel like there’s a hope left in the world.

Since Christmas, I have been playing the sTickLips album obsessively, and, for me, it’s among the very best things I heard in 2009. The album is called It Is Like a Horse. It Is Not Like Two Foxes, and it’s available on both iTunes and Amazon, and from their own label, Proliferate Music. The words and songs (and the acoustic guitar) are mostly by the lead singer, one Johanna Warren, who is a junior at Bard, and who, astonishingly, just turned 21. The atmospheric noise, including ring modulator and analogue synth and electric guitar, are by Johannah’s principle collaborators, Jonathan Nocera and Jim Bertini. Since the weird, evocative lyrics, all of them slippery and hard to interpret, are from some completely new place, I decided that it would be fun to talk to a college junior who has far more insight and creativity than any one kid ought. The results are below. sTickLips, for people in the East, will be playing a sort of an official New York record release for their album tomorrow, January 22, at Cameo on 93 North 6th Street, in Williamsburg. Their Facebook page is herewith.

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Rick Moody: Grew up where? Started playing when? Family musical? What kinds of musical influences were around when you first started playing? And what are you studying at Bard?

Johanna Warren: I grew up in a few places… chronologically: St. Petersburg, Florida; Belmont, Massachusetts; Decatur, Georgia; and Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

I used to play classical flute very seriously, starting in fifth grade. Much to my parents’ and teachers’ dismay, I had no interest in being a classical musician, so I ditched the flute in favor of a guitar. But I still do a lot of my composing on the flute because it feels so natural to me, and it does make a few appearances on the album.

I picked up guitar when I was fourteen, and started writing very short, silly songs in junior year of high school (although technically the first song I ever wrote was a tender love ballad, played with two fingers on a toy piano, for the hottest guy in my kindergarten class). Actually, a few of the songs on the album (“To Shake a Tower,” “At Least,” “Know Your Blows”) were written when I was in high school.

My dad is very musical—he plays piano and sings, and has an amazing ear. He was adamant that as children my two brothers and I make music in one way or another.

Early influences…both my parents are huge Beatles freaks, and I myself harbored an unhealthy obsession with them for most of my young life. They were definitely the reason I bought a guitar. Until I was thirteen I refused to listen to anything that wasn’t the Beatles. In high school I got into the Pixies, Beck, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits.

As far as current influences, for brevity’s sake, I’ll keep it to the top five: Radiohead. Joanna Newsom. Os Mutantes. Stereolab. Sonic Youth.

At Bard, I was on track to be a painting major, but just switched to Spanish literary translation.

Moody: It’s funny how influence can always seem so explicable, so practical, and still not tell you that much. Of those you listed, only Os Mutantes strikes me as a band that I would associate with what you do, although I suppose I understand Joni Mitchell, more for lyrical empowerment than anything else.

And I’m even more admiring of “At Least,” now that I know it’s from when you were younger. I was associating it, interpretively, with Bard, since it has that eating disorder component, but it could be high school, too, of course.

How did you start playing with these two other guys in sTickLips? And why this particular arrangement of talents (no regular rhythm section, for example)? It’s not a routine lineup at all. Did you always want to combine the folkier influences with the more arty ideas for arrangement? Was it an organic idea to incorporate “noise,” for lack of a better word? Or was it just that you met the right collaborators? How long have you been playing together now?

Warren: I met Jonathan and Jim when I was a freshman at Bard. Jonathan was a senior; Jim had just graduated. They were both starting to get in to music production, but neither of them wrote songs, so they were basically looking for someone to produce. When Jonathan approached me about it, I had a stockpile of crappy Garageband recordings. I didn’t think much of them, and I never would have considered myself a “musician,” so while I was excited and flattered by his proposition, I was skeptical that anything could ever really come from it—I figured he would be disappointed.

“At Least” was the first song we recorded. I went to Jonathan’s dorm room and played it for him, and he immediately started making crazy outer space noises on his ring modulator. He later told me that he was thinking, “I am going to fuck up Jo’s beautiful song as much as possible . . . and if she likes it, this is going to work out just fine!” Well, I loved it. I had always known that my favorite music was much “weirder” than what I was able to do with an acoustic guitar, so I was very grateful to find a collaborator so well-versed in weirdness.

So, we laid down the basic tracks in the Bard studio; then, one by one we added increasingly weird parts until what had been a bare-bones acoustic song was suddenly this richly layered, bizarre composition. All of the aforementioned high school songs underwent similar transformations, but I also started writing new songs (e.g. “Cattleships & Bruisers,” “We’ll Have the Hags Flung Out”) with the new possibilities offered by a band in mind.

We definitely didn’t have any kind of “vision” when we first started– from day one until the very end, we never stopped experimenting, messing around, following our instincts, and trying things we never thought would work. This album was a collaboration in the truest sense of the word, because we all come from very different musical backgrounds—so between the three of us, at any given moment in the studio we might be talking about reggae, techno, Tropicalia, free jazz, Motown, Pink Floyd, some Japanese noise band, Black Sabbath, Nigerian High Life, Appalachian folk music, Frank Zappa, or any combination of these things. So we constantly had all these insane influences rubbing up against each other, hooking up and giving birth to some very interesting babies.

The great thing about making this album—which took about a year and a half total—was how much everyone grew, both individually and together as a unified creative mind. None of us had ever done anything like this, we were all very inexperienced, but over that year and a half we all really blossomed in our respective fields; and at the same time, this musical organism called sTickLips was born.

About the unusual line-up and arrangements, it’s pretty simple: some songs naturally call for drums, some don’t. Because we didn’t start out as a “band,” the emphasis was always on the studio production rather than who-is-going-to-do-what-on-stage. But incidentally, now that the album is done, we have worked out a pretty cool live situation.

Moody: I guess I hear some of the proggy and African stuff in “Hags,” etc., and I
was wondering about that. That was a big influence on me, because I am old enough to have listened to a lot of rock and roll before punk happened along. And Zappa/Crimson/Genesis, etc., that was some of what my older sister (and my mother) loved and that I heard before I heard Velvet Underground/Iggy Pop/Sex Pistols, which changed everything for me, for a while anyhow. Now I love all the extremes. But it’s always interesting to me when someone younger understands or is interested in complicated time signature changes, as you guys assuredly are, because it reminds me of an era when that was what “art rock” was about. The kids don’t listen to much of this sort of thing anymore. Common time rules.

What’s interesting to me in what you wrote last night is that “Cattleships” and  “Hags” are my favorite songs on the record right now (although I have a soft spot for “At Least”). Which means that the newer stuf is the best stuff, and obviously that’s the best situation to be in.

Let’s talk about lyric writing some: How do you find material to write about? And who is the slippery sTickLips narrator? I got into a dispute with a friend about “At Least,” because I was saying that it was an unreliable Randy Newman-first-person, whereas this friend was saying that it was straighforward confessional number. What’s your position here? And with the long poem in the middle of “Cattleships and Bruisers,” was that written freestanding and the music set to the words, or did the poetry evolve to fit a hitherto existing musical framework? Do you see the album as having a unified lyrical vision? If yes, what’s it about?

Warren: I honestly can’t think of a single instance in which I have sat down to write a song with a subject in mind. I am a firm believer that my subconscious is smarter than I am, so I tend to let it do the thinking. “Cattleships & Bruisers” is the most blatant example of this, because it was in fact a deliberate experiment in stream of consciousness: I typed the words on my computer without thinking, stopping, or deleting; then I recorded myself singing these words over one unchanging chord, with no premeditated melody in mind. That recording is almost identical to what ended up on the album.

That might seem like a cop-out of an answer, so I will try to elaborate a bit. I envision my brain as a sponge: anything I read (literature, newspaper stories, philosophy), anything I experience (movies, dreams, conversation fragments, the natural world) is all absorbed, where it sits, wet and heavy in my skull, until I give it a squeeze. The unpredictable liquid that leaks out, then, is a song! It is exceedingly rare that a song makes sense to me when I first write it. Sometimes it remains a mystery forever, but what happens with startling frequency is that a week or month or year later, I reflect on a song that seemed like utter nonsense when I wrote it, and
suddenly its meaning is quite obvious to me.

Moody: So: a unified lyrical vision? If yes, consisting of what?

Warren: No— these songs were written scattered over a considerable period of time, and I never even thought to try to make any song compliment any other. Incidentally, the same can be said of the recording process: because I’m in school and the boys live in the city, we had to get in a few hours here, a day there, basically whenever we happened to be in the same place. The fact that there is any feeling of cohesiveness on this album is a miracle.

Moody: What exactly is of interest to you in a–for lack of a better word–surrealist approach to lyric writing? Why do it this way? Why no conventional verse/verse/chorus/verse/chorus issue-oriented lyrics?

Warren: I don’t understand why there has to be this expectation for songs to exist inside such stifling parameters. I hate being able to predict the next chord change or lyric. My favorite music is that which surprises. Song writing has such vast possibilities as an art form, but our brains are so bombarded with the normative verse/chorus/bridge form that it becomes difficult to think outside of those limitations. I think I like the “surrealist” approach because it presents an easily accessible escape route from these conventions—if my conscious mind has been infected with the mainstream pop song format, my subconscious seems to have escaped relatively unharmed. So, songs that come from that deeper place are endlessly more interesting to me.

Moody: Well, that’s an interesting reply, and it’s heading in the right direction. But my interpretation would go like this: I think the album as a whole is sort of set up by “Bedding Wells,” which has a fairy tale like aspect to it, or an old-folk-song like aspect to it, but one that is informed by a very explicit evocation of childhood sexuality that kind of has, as I hear it, an almost incestuous intensity to it. Of course the fantasy of brother/sister incest is as old as the hills in folkloric tradition, and is not terribly poisonous in that well of subconscious imagery, it’s almost quaint. But to me the fact of this theme points out how pure, and unedited, your instincts are. The rest of the album, though it doesn’t really take up these themes, uses this approach as a template, it seems to me, moving in an out of “realism” and in and out of a lyrical approach that has a much more “folkloric” quality to it. Which is one reason that the album, despite its very modern surface reminds me (of all things) of a pair of albums that almost no one listens to anymore (and even fewer people like), viz., Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot, by Genesis[1]. The “Supper’s Ready” modality of Peter Gabriel’s lyric writing is not at all unlike what you are doing,where in the surrealism and the childhood sexuality are strongly yoked together. Joanna Newsom is a recent example of a similar approach.

Another way at getting at the issue (the issue of “What exactly does Johanna mean?”) is to ask: Why all the spoonerisms? I find the tendency curious. Initially, one wants to read “Bedding Wells” as meaning exactly what it says (it’s about bedding well, not about wedding bells), but maybe you want more than that. Is it just play? Or is there more to it for you?

Warren: Wow. I definitely never expected to be compared to Genesis in this lifetime.

You are definitely on to something with the childhood sexuality analysis… I myself have often employed the word “incestuous” in reference to “Bedding Wells.” And there is certainly a recurrent romanticization of childhood throughout the album (most notably, I’d say, in “Birch Bark”). The innocence, imagination, and adventurousness of childhood is all very fertile ground for me.

The music box intro is important. As the first sound on the album, I wanted it to feel like you are opening an old dusty box full of secret letters and cherished trinkets, which the album will subsequently try to document. I never considered the connection between my band mates and my brothers… but I do certainly think of them as brothers, and Jonathan has often told me he considers me his little sister.

Another piece of evidence for your theory is the cover art, an antique photo of a young boy and a girl, possibly siblings, but it almost looks like they are posing for a wedding portrait. When I found that photograph I immediately thought it was a perfect illustration of “Bedding Wells.”

Moody: Why all the spoonerisms?

Warren: It is mostly playful, but I do love the alternate meanings that emerge. “Bedding Wells” is my favorite example, because as you pointed out, both meanings are extremely relevant to the song. This sort of goes back to my fondness for all things subconscious—I chose the spoonerisms I did for the surreal truth that emerges from them.

Moody: What’s with the rabbit ears you wear onstage in many of the live photos?

Warren: Long ago, Jonathan once referred to our recording process as “a bunny with cyborg implants”—i.e. the bare-bones acoustic/vocal framework is a sweet li’l bunny, into which we implant robot parts. But come to think of it, I started wearing the ears before I had a band, when I was just playing at open mics and what not. They were a good luck charm I guess. They make me less scared to play in front of people. Less naked.

Moody: Can I persuade you not to use the promo photo of you half in a garbage can—for feminist reasons?

Warren: I’ll think about it. While I admit I had not considered the feminist implications, I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily derogatory. I once read an essay claiming that Madonna’s music video, “Open Your Heart,” in which she is a stripper in a peep show, has this empowering  feminist message because it emphasizes the “play” of gender roles. Hmmm…

Moody: What does the band name mean to you?

Warren: Well, I already know you’re not going to buy it when I say, “It doesn’t mean anything.” But… it doesn’t mean anything.

Moody: You’re right, I don’t buy it. Can you further describe your approach to playing live now?

Warren: It’s a four-piece band with Jim Bertini on drums, Jonathan Nocera on electric guitar, and Chris St. Hillaire on bass. For live shows we’ve added drums and bass to a few songs that don’t have them on the album. Then on songs without drums and bass, Chris and Jim take on a variety of odd jobs like glockenspiel, second guitar parts, bell-ringing, music boxes (we open “
“Bedding Wells” with a small army of music boxes). “Birch Bark” is the only one I do solo.

Moody: What’s next for the band?

Warren: After I graduate, I plan on making the band my number one priority… I’ve been doing this crazy juggling act of music and academia for two years, so I’m definitely looking forward to being able to devote my full attention to it. That said, we’ve been doing alright given our circumstances… so for now, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing.  I’ve already got quite a bit of material for the next album, and we want to start playing live more now that we’re sounding tight as a band.

Moody: And why Spanish translation?

Warren: I was going to be a painting major, but I realized that painting and music are both things in which I am pretty self-motivated. I wanted to do something in college that I wouldn’t be doing on my own anyway. I started taking Spanish classes at Bard and really fell in love with the language and literature. I am completely obsessed with translation—it is an endlessly fascinating art form. I’ve translated a few of my songs into Spanish…. so I’m ready for international superstardom.

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[1] Yes, the author understands that this was about the least cool possible thing to say, and leaves it in the spirit of fidelity to journalistic truth.

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All photos by Jenny Brover.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →