“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.
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.