I like music that has a fair amount of silence in it.
This is a guilty admission in some ways, or an admission long in coming, given that for many years in youth and young adulthood I liked things that were extremely loud. All that music from my youth, the very loud music, I still love it. I still think Hüsker Dü was a great band, and I still think Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth is a masterpiece. The Sex Pistols still appear to me to have changed the world. My War, by Black Flag—what could better? And yet: when I look for new things, things that I haven’t heard before, things that surprise and delight me now, they are almost always things that are exceedingly quiet, or which have a certain stillness and space built into them. In the thrall of these kinds of things, it appears to me that music is itself oddly contradictory, given that music that is spare derives a significant power not from the music portion of the aesthetic statement, but from the moments in which there is no music, only silence, however fleeting. Music is not complete, that is, until the not music portion of it, the music-cessation portion, is fused together with the music itself.
Accordingly, nothing looks more forbidding to me than those sound files (you can see them on SoundCloud), in which all the sounds in a track have been boosted to the maximum level, all dynamic variation has been removed from the piece, and there’s a brash monotony to the musical proceedings, such as would serve excellently for torture in extraordinary rendition settings of the future (here’s an example from an artist I find hard to like). That hovering, still quality in music—the incorporation of silence—on the contrary, feels patient, observant, in a way that louder, more throwaway things do not feel. Skrillex may be great for the dance floor, but he inhibits my participation in daily life with his digital screech. He is good for total distraction, for those moments when you are pretending the world is not there. But I am after a music that renders life as it is, and which invites in the intermittent pulsations of life. Brian Eno’s just-released outtake from the album Neroli, entitled “New Space Music,” somehow makes me more aware of life as lived. It welcomes the sounds of your environment into the piece.
My argument is that this stillness I’m talking about is a metaphor, somehow, or an emblem, for the sounds of the world, for the preciousness of the world, in the Cagean sense (a plane is passing overhead as I write this line). The stillness I’m talking about reminds us what music is, because it breaks music down into the simplest expression of its component elements, and in this we can hear music as it happens. Music in a more minimal environment proves the theorem of music, almost in a binary way, by incorporating silences and playing with the game of music/non-music.
What follows here are two recent examples of work that, in differing ways, display this more still approach. In each case, these are artists who are so far from the conventional popular model of what music is (the dynamically boring, boosted-to-the-edge-of-unpleasant contemporary song, with its auto-tuning, its ten thousand tracks, its total lack of actual music produced by musicians, excepting perhaps the guy operating the ProTools rig). In each case herein, these artists are toiling at the margins of notoriety, and could, therefore, use some of your consideration. There are moments here of extremely moving music happening, in which stillness and silence and the minimal musical gesture are the best way to get at what these musicians are trying to say as writers. Themes like loss, loneliness, death, devotion, and belief orbit around this music—which is perhaps what stillness is a metaphor for—but whatever the theme, or lack thereof, this music is more arresting to me than what you usually hear out there these days, and thus I bring these recordings to your attention.
1. Misfortune, by Concern (Orindal)
I learned about Concern from Owen Ashworth, the musician responsible for Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and Advance Base (about whom I have written elsewhere, and whose own work I admire a great deal), who, it turns out, is the brother of Concern’s one and only member, Gordon Ashworth. The particular album that Owen gave to my wife (who played it for me) was the second Concern release, Truth and Distance. I knew nothing about the album at all. I hadn’t read about Concern; I didn’t have any preconceptions about the music, nor about the musician who made it, which is always a very good way to hear something for the first time.
Whereas Owen Ashworth makes songs out of the slightly degraded sounds of cheap drum machines and mass-produced musical instruments, and through the homeliness of these materials (and by virtue of his extraordinary lyrics) suggests the desperation and struggle of regular people, Gordon Ashworth, in Concern, strips down the sound field even further, mainly creating wordless drones from acoustic instruments edited together in inventive and spooky ways that summon images of music on the edge of decay in some distant industrial environment. Gordon is like a flutist with missing fingers playing in an empty fast-food franchise.
We played Truth and Distance around our house for a good while, and then just when it had retreated to a distant spot on the iTunes playlist, we visited Owen Ashworth in Chicago for Thai food, and he surprised us with Misfortune, the “last” Concern album. Which in many ways is even spookier and more arresting than Truth and Distance. Because we were soon travelling to Portland, where Gordon Ashworth lives, I had hoped to interview him in person, but as befits someone who makes music in such strange and inventive ways, Gordon did not want to meet in person. The interview, then, proceeded over the course of many weeks, by e-mail, while Gordon Ashworth, just back from some touring, performed his lonely overnight shifts, at a certain job that is detailed further below. Misfortune is one of my very favorite albums from last year, and I think, in its stealthy way, it will become some of the most important experimental music produced in this period. (And here’s a Gordon Ashworth non-Concern release that is very beautiful too.)
The Rumpus: Misfortune is notable for how non-electronic it is. Was the drive, in this case, to make very acoustic drones, or did you simply make the music that wanted to be made on the box harp?
Gordon Ashworth: The fundamental link between all Concern releases is the strict use of acoustic instruments (and field recordings) as source sounds, meaning no electronic instruments or signal generators were used. Though there are a few additional EPs and tapes, I consider Concern to essentially exist as a three album project: Truth & Distance, Caesarean, and Misfortune. If you look at the liner notes on each LP, you can see a dwindling in the variety of acoustic instruments used. Truth & Distance was built from 10 instruments, Caesarean was built from 5, and Misfortune used the box harp as the sole instrument. So Misfortune is both a continuation and narrowing of these acoustic studies, and the end of the project. It is also a dedicated study of the box harp and the acoustic spaces used to record it, exploring traditional and unorthodox techniques to produce the sounds I needed for the emotional & thematic direction of the album.
Rumpus: Is the reason it’s the LAST album by Concern because the process of ensemble-related diminishment can’t go any further (the dwindling you refer to), or for other thematic reasons?
Ashworth: Consciously, it wasn’t exactly the impetus for ending the project, but in hindsight, it’s a nicely reasoned exit. Misfortune felt like a natural dead-end in many ways. The decision to strip down the ensemble to a single instrument was conscious when planning the album, but I didn’t consider it the final document until it was finished. There is certainly a feeling of terminus in the theme of the album as well as my urge to change direction artistically. Strangely, it took two versions of the same album for it to truly feel completed.
Rumpus: I hadn’t heard about the two versions of the same album. Can you elaborate?
Ashworth: The original version of Misfortune was released on LP by the label Isounderscore in 2012. Right after it was released, I toured Europe with the Italian duo Matar Dolores and performed versions of Misfortune each night. As the performance developed, I realized there was more I wanted to do with the material, as well as explain the concept and theme beyond the scant information on the LP jacket. The label PAN offered to reissue the album on CD, and I took the opportunity to produce a revised, alternate version of the album. I spent about a year elaborating and refining Misfortune and ended up having it released by Orindal, with the blessing of Isounderscore and PAN.
Rumpus: Do you think of the second version is a necessary renovation of the first, or are you happy with both versions coexisting?
Ashworth: I view them as parallel and complimentary versions, rather than the second replacing the first; I hope it’s received as an expansion and mirror rather than rehash or correction. I really appreciate alternate versions of familiar, established material when they give a more complete window into an artist’s process. If the first version is presented as a mysterious, minimalist object, the second version is a more explanatory and accessible document that showed up a couple years later. I like that both exist.
Rumpus: Can we talk a little bit about drone as a gesture, and how you came to it? I gather, in other musical guises, that you are more melodically animated than in Concern. How does your interest in the drone arise?
Ashworth: My interest in drone initially came from making music alone, and finding ways to accompany myself through repetitive tones on piano and banjo (my first instruments) and eventually electronics and tape. This was before being exposed to “drone” music as a genre, just being drawn to constant tones and harmony. Drone is a very effective way to create a mood, establish a theme, drill in an obsession and expectation that affects the listener in both its insistence and potential disruption. Regarding melodic progression as an artist, my longest running solo project, Oscillating Innards, was mostly very non-musical and atonal, but I’ve consistently studied more melodic forms as a listener and in my recordings as Concern, CAEN, and my given name (which is the most blatantly melodic of all my projects). I mostly listen to sub-Saharan African, Greek, American folk/blues, and experimental music these days, much of which is drone-based, so it’s a pretty constant immersion.
Rumpus: Can you give some examples of the non-Western stuff you’re listening to? I’m always eager for new things to listen to in the world of the drone. And I guess I’m very interested in the role of experimental music in your approach to Concern. Is La Monte Young a touchstone for any of this droning? Or Eliane Radigue? Or for that matter Phill Niblock, the godfather of the contemporary drone? I imagined I heard a little bit of his cinematic qualities in what you do, especially on Truth and Distance. And what about, e.g., Metal Machine Music?
Ashworth: Epirotika (from northern Greece) & Albanian music are incredibly powerful and incorporate foundational vocal and instrumental drones. Rebetika from Athens and Smyrna, heavily influenced by Turkish and Central Asian music, also incorporates constant repetition of tones. Many forms of sub-Saharan African music use highly repetitive and droning motifs, i.e. Ethiopian begena and krar… Tuareg, Manding, and Luba guitar playing… kora and lute music from Senegambia, Guinea, Mali, etc. Two of the pieces on Misfortune are based on tunings for the Madagascan valiha and the West African kora. Open tunings used in Western folk and blues is also a big influence of my approach to playing.
Regarding Western influence, Niblock is certainly important; he helped open my perspective to virtually any instrument as a medium for drone. As for the US minimalist scene, I was never really into Young, Riley, Glass, etc., although I enjoy and have borrowed techniques from Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, and Robert Ashley. Lou Reed is not a direct influence. My influence of more abrasive sound comes from Japanese and American ’90s harsh noise. The first drone/ambient music I was exposed to was Niblock, Stars of the Lid, Andrew Chalk… more modern stuff. Older influences are in the realm of European musique concrete / tape music, i.e. Luc Ferrari, Pierre Schaeffer, Alvin Lucier, Iannis Xenakis.
Rumpus: Niblock and Stars of the Lid both make use of significant editorial intervention in the work (I think, correct me if I’m wrong), and are about layering. Certainly, Niblock is, at any rate. And you’re model seems far more acoustic, especially since you’re avoiding generating the tones with electronic instrumentation. What’s the reason for the more acoustic model? Does it derive from the non-Western music that you’re interested in? In a way, I want to ask what Greek music means that electronic drones don’t mean? (I’m thinking, e.g., of The Disintegration Loops, by Basinski, which I like quite a bit.)
Ashworth: Acoustic instruments are the most accessible and understandable mediums to me, and physical space is very important. It’s a more direct method of working with space and environment, rather than generating an electronic sound from a circuit and projecting it through a speaker “into” the space (audibly). An acoustic instrument must inherently interact with its spatial environment, as pressures and chambers that are interconnected at birth and feed off each other. Drone as a genre often emphasizes timbre, texture, and production over aspects like composition, melody, rhythm. A significant part of my fascination with non-Western (and field-recorded) music is how the sound interacts with its spatial environment, how the timbre of the instrument is colored by the space and vice versa. Acoustic instruments are the most direct communion with humanity, in the sense that there is no electrical agent or convertor between the physical human, the resonating material, and the spatial environment. I think there is a special kind of intensity that results from this directness.
Rumpus: What physical space did you record your album in, therefore? And what does it tell us about those spaces, from your point of view?
Ashworth: The initial box harp sounds on Misfortune were recorded in two house basements, then broadcast from car stereo speakers and re-recorded in several hospital parking garages in Portland, Oregon. There are also field recordings from public locations, specifically the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels and an indoor public market in Hamburg. The intent of utilizing the hospital parking garages was to explore and document the reaction of the box harp tones in thematically relevant and acoustically unique spaces. These underground, concrete garages are not only ideal locations as guerilla reverberation chambers, but also contain deep feelings of veiled emergency, quiet desperation, and anonymous suffering, especially late at night. The intent of incorporating recordings from the cathedral and the marketplace is to temper the musical qualities with locations associated with either sanctuary, quietude, and god (the cathedral), or agoraphobia, overpopulation, and anxiety (the marketplace). “S.T.L.A.” contains field recordings from many locations while touring across Europe alone, as well as my job as a night taxi driver. The theme is centered around traveling and resigning to a solitary life by distancing oneself from relationships and “home,” literally and figuratively. By using methods of layering, broadcasting/re-recording, tape loops, etc., these site/time specific field recordings can become indistinguishably entwined with the musical elements, confusing the senses of location and time into an impossible, abstract but seemingly naturally occurring scenario.
Rumpus: Well, there are two things happening in the fascinating and complex response to the prior question. First, there is the announcement of a theme, or at least the presence of a theme. Is the theme, “deep feelings of veiled emergency, quiet desperation and anonymous suffering,” or are these other things adjacent to the theme (“centered around” it), but not exactly it? That is, is the theme a structured absence, as they say in the lit crit world, or is the theme, perhaps, as entitled (“misfortune”) and the above mere synonyms or related feelings?
The other thing happening in this response is its conclusion: “into an impossible, abstract but seemingly naturally occurring scenario.” There’s some much in this little coda! One is the implication that drones are “abstract.” Is that the implication? Because the idea that they are abstract (rather than, say, “indirect”) is at variance with the idea that there are themes to the album. Moreover, while I understand that other people find drones abstract, I find them full of feeling, as I think you have implied above, as well. Are the two conditions—abstract and full of feeling—both possible in a drone? Or in music generally?
Ashworth: The overall theme of Misfortune is the feeling of observing the misfortune of others from the perspective of an anonymous stranger, and the kind of moral grey areas that arise from these situations. It is about reconciling social detachment and individual survival with empathy and pity, and the complications that arise. Each track is meant as an expression of these feelings in specific contexts. “Seven Billion Lives At Once” is the context of public places and social structures on a global level. “God, Weak & Quiet” is more focused on smaller, subjective experience, in the context of religious community, hospitals, recurring strangers, etc. The final movement is a recording of the cathedral being locked for the night, the closing of a sanctuary. “Pity” is the most internal and withdrawn context, focused on mental and emotional processing of the kind of social events implied in the previous pieces. This is the only piece that does not incorporate field recordings of social environments, and is strictly the box harp recorded and processed in a room, alone.
Regarding the use of “abstract,” it refers to both these scenarios being imagined/manipulated (unreal), and the music itself being impressionistic and vestigial, rather than a blatant explanation of these contexts through the use of lyrics, or a more obvious use of melody to direct emotional responses. I don’t feel that abstraction and emotion are mutually exclusive, or that themes and meaning are at variance with abstract art. It’s about the listener feeling and discovering these themes on a more impressionistic level. I understand that this is problematic in that the listener cannot infer the scope of these themes unless I explicitly explain them as I’m doing now, but I believe that discovery and interpretation are more rewarding and complex than heavy-handed clarification at surface level.
Rumpus: Do you think the feelings that you’re after with the music are possible outside of a rigorous explanation? I feel the pieces to be generous with feeling, but I wonder if they have to be representational, at all, in order to have this feeling. Maybe this feeling is because of your specific melodic interests in Concern, or because of your preoccupation with the acoustic, more so than because of any explanation?
Ashworth: Yes, the track titles can serve as a kind of informant or revealer. The album is an interesting format for music that has seen a lot of experimentation over the years. One can accompany the musical pieces with an album title, track titles, imagery, and whatever explicit or metaphorical information you like, which can either codify or demystify the thematic, technical, and conceptual content. I prefer the sound to do most of the expression, and to let the visual and textual elements give smaller suggestions to the overall theme. That’s how I’ve approached past releases, sometimes poorly. The reconstructed version of Misfortune contains the most explicit textual information contained any of my releases (except perhaps the Oscillating Innards “Irretrievable” retrospective, which is more autobiographical than thematic). I think the reason for this was because I felt like so much information was lost in the original version and the themes were more developed than past releases. There is certainly the opposite end of the spectrum: where there is no deep theme or meaning beyond the sound, and a lack of explanation isn’t obscuring anything. There is nothing necessarily wrong or inferior in that approach.
The music will always be paramount in terms of feeling, and I think (my) music could exist in a “vacuum” (without the attached imagery, text, titles) and still have deep feeling. Music is so closely tied with emotion and can be engineered to induce certain emotional responses, which is constantly exploited in advertisements, Romanticism, film soundtracks, etc. It’s all about memory and anticipation. I try to maintain a balance between pure subconscious feeling and recognizing the influence and archetypes of musical decisions.
Rumpus: Well, if this isn’t a last question it announces a last topic, and that is why does it have to end? Why does Concern have to end? Or why is Misfortune the end of this particular project?
Ashworth: The ending of Concern was a kind of fortunate accident. There was a miscommunication between myself and Isounderscore who released the original version of Misfortune, and when it was released, it included the announcement that it was the final Concern album. It seemed confusing to ask that the statement be withdrawn and I decided that it was time to move forward. No grand scheme in the artist’s oeuvre, just a logical ending to a period of work. I could keep making music under the name Concern but I think it would mutate enough over time and would seem like a different project anyway. It’s a good motivation to change paths and challenge myself. Misfortune feels like the right ending in a number of ways, including the dwindling of acoustic ensembles to a single instrument, and how the final version includes all these notes and explicit themes written in a somewhat posthumous sense. I appreciate distinct periods in the work of artists, and I appreciate not repeating oneself and overstaying a welcome.
2. I Line My Days Along Your Weight, by Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne (Important Records)
Initially, I was meant to have a guitar lesson with Mark Rogers, and to use the guitar lesson as a way to talk a little bit about Mark’s and Mary’s album, which album, according to this plan, was a bit of an afterthought. But what happened was that I liked the album too much, was too impressed with it, to be primarily interested in the guitar lesson. This isn’t entirely true, actually, since I let Mark tell me to use my thumb to help me press down harder on the C chord, and he showed me a really good iPhone app that would function as a metronome and help me with some other guitar-related bad habits (I have a lot of them). But soon it became clear that Mark, a big bear of a guy who is transparently humble and soft-spoken, who knows everything about his instrument, was being ill-served as a mere guitar teacher, at least in this exchange with me. The astonishing simplicity and clarity of I Line My Days Along Your Weight sort of overwhelmed me, that is, and I was eager to talk about it to the exclusion of learning guitar tricks, especially when Mary got into the conversation, too, with her elegantly complete sentences, sinuous thoughts, and her self-evident seriousness and ambition.
I Line My Days Along Your Weight has something in common with the duo model of acoustic music that we associate with, e.g., Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, or with Richard and Linda Thompson, or with Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, but it is also so much, much more than that. First, it doesn’t seem to have a musical genre. (See below.) You can’t pigeonhole it as being fully reliant on Appalachian music. It doesn’t twang exactly. It doesn’t sound like singer-songwriter music of the seventies variety—its lyrics are far too sly to be self-evidently confessional. And Mary Byrne’s voice, which is soulful, which has a little bit of black music implicated in it, also feels very contemporary, and post-punk, and one hears rock and roll, and psychedelia, and punk, and indie rock in it. And that’s without even belaboring Mark’s astonishing guitar playing. There’s not a track on this record that is not adorned with a startlingly original guitar part, and though Mark refuses to think of himself as a traditional lead player here, it’s precisely in how unusual his thinking is, how melodic, how unprepossessing, that he feels like that is his very role. Because of the marriage of these two very singular talents, these songs are never reductively one thing; they are much slipperier than that. This is one of those albums that gets better and better the more you listen to it. And that’s saying something because it’s pretty significantly great at the outset. (And I should, while I have your attention, alert you to the Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne website, which has, in addition to news, lots of great photography.)
The Rumpus: So how did you guys start doing this together?
Mary Byrne: We started doing it together mainly because we decided to. We talked about it and we decided to and began sort of tentatively doing small work together. We played a couple folk nights together, which involved playing some old folk songs and one original song. We were kind of on our way in that fashion. And then Hurricane Sandy happened. We were here with no work and basically waiting for work. That was the main fallout of Sandy for us—waiting for work.
Rumpus: What’s your day job, Mary?
Byrne: I’ve worked freelance in copyediting and proofreading. There was no work for a while and I was basically sitting and waiting to find out every day if I was going to be working. And in the meantime, we sat together and we wrote. This accelerated things to a degree that wouldn’t have happened under any other circumstances. I think there was something about the length of time. There was something about the actual experience of Hurricane Sandy. It’s not like the writing was a catharsis. It wasn’t like that. It felt much more serious than that. And sitting together and working together. A gigantic transition happened. Since then, I’ve pulled back a lot on the freelance work and we really put our energies into this project.
Rumpus: Before this, Mary, you were playing like electric guitar?
Byrne: Yeah, I was playing electric.
Mark Rogers: Mary was like the indie rock queen of Atlanta.
Byrne: Ha! That’s funny. I had played in a couple of different rock bands before starting my own and it was a rock trio, where I was the only guitar player and the lead singer. And I’m not a traditional lead guitar player so I kind of approached it as a rhythm player would. It was a very rhythmically-oriented trio called Hot Young Priest and we were based in Atlanta and it was really my proving grounds where I learned so much from Mark’s band who was in the scene at the time, from my band mates. So that was all electric. When we moved up here and I was at the MFA program [at Brooklyn College], I wasn’t actively doing music but I was writing. And I started to pick up some acoustic and played around with that. And I had also gotten back to piano, which was my first instrument. If you ask about the finger picking style I often use on the album, and what the genesis of it was, I think it was because we couldn’t bring a grand piano into every club that we were playing.
Rogers: And just to continue on how it evolved, I was in the little East Atlanta village area. I held down a couple days jobs, working in the French kitchen in one of the restaurants in the neighborhood. I’d change my clothes and run across the street and teach a couple more hours of guitar lessons. I don’t know if the word got around that I taught a little bit but Mary came. She didn’t need lessons, but we sat together a few lessons and just talked about guitar and how things could be a little more smooth and she went off and just kicked some serious tail end. A conversation about how to optimize your whole approach was beginning way back then. For example, how does a beautiful alto voice, not even in a rock band but in any setting, cut through, when most of the guitars are tuned right around that frequency? So one of the topics of our conversation was Maybelle Carter. When I moved up here after being in tons of bands and to varying degrees of success, there was an aspect of music that I missed. I missed the American folk stuff. So I really took advantage of coming here to New York in that I used the libraries and I immersed myself in American music, the teaching of it, the learning of the styles. What I mean is that Maybelle Carter was frequently tuned down two steps.
Rumpus: C-sharp, right?
Rogers: Or C, depending on what key Sara was in with the autoharp. Most people don’t really realize because they were so tight, that backbeat is often the autoharp hitting, taking off, departing when Maybelle needed to go do a run. So Sara had this autoharp and she was strong on that thing. And they were singing en pointe three-part harmony. There’s not nearly enough gig audio of the Carter family. It’s often just recording sessions and they would do recording sessions anywhere they could. What did they put out? They put out something like 800 songs between 1927 and 1950? But Sara was really the rhythmic backbone. A.P. didn’t do anything except for sing bass.
Rumpus: And steal songs from other people.
Rogers: He may say, Son I didn’t steal them songs, I got in my car and went up on top of that holler, walked through that valley, on top of that hill, to meet that guy . . . He might have been saying, I take offense to you saying I purloined that piece of music from the 19th Century, I earned it. He did earn it. He really went to the mat for them. We’re in the depth of the depression and he was a huge star. He left and went to Detroit to work in a factory, in the auto factory in Dearborn. He’s a huge star and he’s working in a factory because nobody could make it.
But anyway the low C-tuning, it freed Mary’s voice up. So now’s there was a rhythmic bed and she’s solid and I knew it and then her voice was freed. I gotta tell you when Mary plugs in at any club and those low notes come out, whoever’s standing around even before a sound check, whoever’s standing around is like, that’s cool.
Rumpus: So it’s not a baritone guitar?
Byrne: I don’t actually own a baritone. I own a standard tune guitar that Mark has done some significant work on to make it be able to handle the heavier strings and it has worked out well. I suppose at some point maybe buying a real “baritone” guitar could be a possibility. But this is working out fine. It’s working out great.
Rogers: It’s sort of a cool stealth effect. You’re standing there, the girl with the guitar and all of a sudden she’s like, it’s deep, it’s penetrating, it’s super cool. Those real acoustic baritones, they’re kind of unwieldy. That neck is five frets longer. So you’re down here for your finger picking or you have to shift it and I wanted to make it as comfortable as possible so we found an instrument and I did some serious research on the bass strings for it with the thickest cords and all that. Every aspect of what we’re doing is kind of well thought out and wedding-caked. Her voice is here, her guitar’s down here, so she’s taking care of the bass stuff but also the rhythm. And I’m either up with a mandolin or somewhere with a slide. Or in the same register as her but getting out of her way for the vocal. That comes out of long conversations of how do you, how does an alto do it? You don’t want to kill your voice all the time.
Byrne: Robert Plant he just sings high because that’s where he can sing. He can sing low if he wants to. He can sing like a tenor. He could. But in the frequencies the band was in, that’s where he would be heard.
Rumpus: So, Mary, did you have the folk music yen as well?
Byrne: No, I didn’t have the folk music yen. I had the spare minimalist yen.
Rumpus: Meaning like Young Marble Giants or Jonathan Richman? What does that mean to you?
Byrne: What comes to mind is the video of Bill Withers at the concert in Zaire. You know that concert movie that was made?
Rumpus: The Rumble In the Jungle.
Byrne: I heard it first on I guess on the radio and then I saw it in the documentary. Withers is playing the same three notes over and over again, dum-dum-dum…dum-dum-dum, and he’s just, emoting over it.
Rumpus: So your minimalism has a soul context?
Byrne: It’s more minimalist absent genre. I couldn’t get much more specific than that. Conceptually, I couldn’t get more specific.
Rumpus: So is there a way that this music is also a natural outgrowth of being together? How long were you together before you wrote your first song?
Rogers: We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary.
Byrne: Of our first date. So when we wrote our first song we had been together for, what, eight and a half years? I think that the reason why it involves talking is that making music together you make yourself really vulnerable. We have made ourselves really vulnerable in a planetary kind of way. We’re vulnerable in the sense that we’re putting work out there, we’re talking about it with people, it’s distributed around the world, we’re financially vulnerable. There are so many levels of vulnerability that come out of this kind of work being done on serious level. It is really good to be doing it with a person you have a lot of experience being vulnerable with. I find that ideal. I think a lot other people might not, who would like to work in a different way maybe, or get different rewards. For me, it’s an ideal way of working.
Rumpus: One thing that’s obvious to me since I play in a band that’s not that far off of what you guys are doing is what an incredibly striking recording this is, and because I know how hard it is when there’s only two instrumentalists to cover up the, you know, the little flubs and stuff and the moments when the instruments aren’t in synch exactly and so on. Is the recording so clean because you guys are a couple, and therefore you know each other really well?
Byrne: Wow, I’m amazed that it sounds clean to you.
Rumpus: Does it not sound clean to you? I don’t see, or hear, any warts.
Rogers: Together, there’s really no hiding. I kind of feel like we coalesced. We started to coalesce in the summer of 2013. We played a show or two at The Sidewalk. We played out of town in Boston and you got the feeling for a while there that it was like sink or swim. You either play well and you do your best and you think really hard about every moment and you’re completely committed to the moment and the song, or it doesn’t work. We’ve gotten better at it, but you have to really commit yourself. I’m going to go on a few tangents. One of them is I really like the fact that we play New York and sometimes we play at places like The Sidewalk and Rockwood Music Hall that are right out on the street. You can hear sirens and you can hear cars and you can hear the street outside and we have audiences who are really paying attention and damn what’s going on outside. We’re finishing a song and we’re all there together but at the end the gig sometimes you want to break down and sit in a corner and kind of rock yourself a little bit because it’s really intense. And I think that us being able to play with that intensity is what has made it look a little easier to people who are on the outside. Oh, they’re just playing these really intense beautiful songs and everything’s clean and the picking and playing is really great and everything. It’s a long process.
Byrne: Maybe another way to come at the question is to say that it’s both love and the hard work in the sense that in the month before we went into the studio we demoed the songs pretty intensely here and we set up a recording rig in the bedroom and we demoed the songs again and again and again and again because we knew we wanted to record them live because it would feel very human, but we wanted to be ready so we demoed them really intensely and ended up rewriting a number of the songs to the point where when we went into record them we hadn’t even played some of them live when we were about to record them. So it’s both the hard work and then, I think, only a loving connection. It was every day, morning till night, again and again and again and again, so that when we went into the studio there could be more fire, fire, fire.
Rumpus: Let me ask about the writing a little bit. I have to say I find the lyrics extraordinary.
Byrne: Thank you.
Rumpus: I’m interested in at what point is the lyric influential in the compositional process? How much music happens before they lyrics are there? For example, my favorite song is the one called “Hospital.” So maybe we could use that as an example for how the process goes.
Byrne: The lyrics existed before any of the music for that particular song. The lyric was written separate and independent of any of the music to follow. The lyric writing happened, well, should I describe that?
I tended to sit for a certain length of time and whatever would happen was what would happen and at the end of the time I would stop and I’d keep coming back to this practice again and again.
Rumpus: You mean, the story or narrative is not a forgone conclusion; it’s the amount of compositional space available to you that’s going to get filled with words.
Byrne: Yes, yes. And usually by the end of the session I’d at least have a direction that things would be headed or sometimes it was a fully completed—okay, I can see there’s several verses there. I think that line is probably the chorus and if I want to bring more in I think I know where I will need to direct those words. And then for the music part, the music part was Mark and I sitting together, it was like take the idea for the lyric writing and just amplify it. It was sitting together working out parts until it felt like it was at a good place.
Rumpus: And would melody happen at that collaborative point?
Byrne: I think in all cases the melody followed the instrumental part. And in some cases the instrumental part was a piano because we did sessions at the Brooklyn Conservatory using some of their piano practice rooms. So in some cases it was a piano and a guitar or a mandolin and we were working that out and then we came back and changed to guitar. The melody I think in every instance was the last part to be added.
Rumpus: And so these guitar parts, or these accompaniments, are they really generated by both of you? Is there a division of labor?
Byrne: Oh, gosh.
Rogers: We tell our sound engineers on stage: don’t assume that anyone’s the lead and anyone’s the rhythm. Think of Hendrix. There are times when Hendrix would play guitar that was rhythmic lead and lead rhythm. That blurring of those sensibilities doesn’t necessarily inform what we do but I like the notion that the melodies and the counter melodies and the aspect of the instrumentation are so rich that it actually doesn’t matter when someone goes to a lead. Yes, I go to a lead solo sometimes, but a lot of times it’s two rhythm parts that are woven together.
Byrne: And that happens in “Hospital.”
Rogers: “Hospital” is a weird case and hopefully it will hearken to what we continue to be able to do together but it’s the weaving together of two guitar parts. When those two get locked together it—
Byrne: It sounds like something else.
Rogers: It sounds like something else. It’s moving. When we recorded the album we went in and most of the songs on the albums are first to third takes. And the first time we played that for our engineer, Chris Cubeta, he said, yeah, I couldn’t even tell how to mix it. I couldn’t tell who was who. And I felt we were onto something. That is a Vulcan mind meld. But then again there are the little guitar fills. Maybe you should try to finish answering the question, Mary. I just get too excited about how cool it sounds.
Rumpus: So what you’re saying then is that I couldn’t force you to identify an author of the music of the songs. That the entity that is Mark-and-Mary is the author of the music of the song.
Byrne: I think so. It is so collaborative. Songwriting with Mark is essentially listening to a cascade of ideas pouring from the guitar or the mandolin or whatever instrument he has in his hands and that is the experience of songwriting with Mark. It is such a gift. It’s listening to this cascade and listening for what direction it should get shaped in and what trajectory to pursue, because you can pursue an innumerable number of thoughts with Mark.
Rogers: Case in point. The second half of the solo after I’ve kind of finished with the calm response slide stuff on “Hospital.” I wasn’t planning on going on but she just kept playing and I’m like oh, I’ll just noodle a little bit and see if I can find a counter melody or something new to add. She just said keep going. I had permission to kind of explore and skip around.
Byrne: Basically, I made a mistake—I was supposed to stop and I didn’t. So you kept going because you had to because I was still playing.
Rumpus: That’s the recorded version?
Byrne: Yeah. I think we did do a couple other takes but we liked that one the best.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the lyrics on that song. Is my perception that it’s written for characters, not for your own voice, accurate or not?
Byrne: I would say it’s not accurate.
Rumpus: Are the songs all autobiographies?
Byrne: I wouldn’t say autobiographies as much as certainly emerging from my own observations and experiences.
Rumpus: So would you feel comfortable telling me about the origin of that song in particular? Which perception it tells of?
Byrne: With “Hospital,”and I think I could say this for all of the lyrics, the approach is to notice something very closely and try to be really precise about describing it. And I found that the more precise and the more close you get to whatever the observation is, the stranger and weirder and more unfamiliar it sounds once you actually put it into words. And in that instance, it was looking at a hospital. Looking at the buildings, the particularly evocative buildings of King’s County hospital.
Rogers: It’s right outside our window.
Byrne: The buildings are incredibly evocative and it’s the hospital for everyone around here, this whole neighborhood. I’m trying to remember what the actual words for that one are so I can trace the trajectory.
Rumpus: I happen to have them right here.
Byrne: Oh yeah. That so funny when you were saying “Hospital” I had it mixed up in my head with “Siren’s Call” because that also involves hospital imagery. With this one I remember it was an instance of trying to describe the experience of having a thought that felt really liberating. And then what happens after you have the thought that’s really liberating is there’s a clamping down because it would be really dangerous or it’s really taboo or it’s really going to set you free. And then I was just trying to be real precise about the thought process that happened from there. Why did that thought get clamped down? What’s going to revive the thought again? And what’s my resolution about that thought? It’s not like I’m having very interesting experiences; it’s just I’m having the same thought process that any person is going through who is trying to grow. I’m trying to follow it really, really closely. Inch by inch, step by step.
Rumpus: It’s a poetical approach. Did you write poems ever?
Byrne: I did. I did. I wrote poems. I wrote stories. But the stories tended to have more lyrical sway to them.
Rumpus: Are there love songs on the album?
Byrne: Very much so. Very, very much so. And again with the approach of let’s look really closely. So in a love song there may be some truly sorrowful elements to the love song. Well, that’s because I think when you really examine the love there’s going to be fear, sorrow, memory; those things do not separate. They are inextricable. I’m not sure I could find a song in there that wouldn’t feel like a love song.
Rumpus: The last song,“Sing a Fare Thee Well,” is one I really want to talk about a little bit too. It’s fascinating to me. I do feel like I’m being facetious when I try to accuse you of having no love songs. I mean none of them is obvious as such. For example, the last song seems to me to be a love song that has a dead body in it.
Byrne: I think that it’s a love song in the sense that it is trying to summon the mate and is making clear what’s at stake. And what’s at stake is this body in the road that is forgotten and forlorn. We saw it on a drive.
Rogers: It was real. I was her roadie for a weekend tour.
Byrne: It was in North Carolina.
Rogers: And we were coming back. We were driving somewhere to stay the night. Maybe to her sister’s place in Duke. After playing a kind of crazy hallucinatory show in Wilmington where this guy…
Byrne: He borrowed my guitar.
Rogers: He borrowed your guitar but then there was another guy asked us to go back into the back the club to go find the guitar and it was kind of evident that something bad was going to happen and I’m grabbing, I got my eye on a 2×4 because you just didn’t know why he asked you to be in the back with him. That was weird.
Byrne: Oh yeah.
Rogers: And we got on the road and we drove in the middle of the night and you know far ahead you saw the police flares and I remember telling you, don’t look, because I saw it, I was like, “that’s a body,” and you looked and I looked and I saw. And that person was just lying in the middle of the interstate.
Byrne: Police lights were shining on the body. Obviously, no family had come yet or nobody else had come yet. I don’t even know if the person had been in a car or they had been hit in the road itself or been trying to cross or what, but as Mark said, it had this hallucinogenic feel, the experience had a hallucinogenic feel.
Rumpus: The remarkable about that song, and it perhaps relates to what you’re describing, is the incredible melody part that Mark is playing at the beginning. It feels Turkish or something.
Rogers: We live in this neighborhood here that’s on the borderline between the West Indians and the Hasidic community. They’re that way and the West Indians are that way and so the melody line on that song reflects that a little bit. It’s a mandolin that is also doubled. There’s a Telly into an amp but the engineer Chris had a pedal board and we messed around with a bunch of delay and some like octave effect and he blended that electric guitar with the mandolin. We were playing in unison. They were the same notes, but the way he blended them together all of sudden Mary goes, you got the steel drum from the neighborhood, because it sounds a little like the steel drum. There’s a percussive aspect to it because the guitar has I think two octaves below it. It’s that Electro-Harmonix effect called the “pog.” It all goes through incredibly expensive pre-amps, high quality stuff, and there’s all the sweetening that happens in the studio although we kept that to a minimum. We were paring back and paring back. Yeah, there’s either steel drum feel or a Turkish feel in the selection of notes but it’s really fun to play on stage. We usually end our set with it and people really respond, I think, to that.
Rumpus: So is this a folk album? I feel like it’s not, really. It’s something else and I’m interested if you guys have an idea what that something else is.
Rogers: We’ve been asked. Since the album was released we’ve been asked this question. I think I told somebody it can’t be a folk album in the traditional sense because there’s no come all ye. And there’s no protest.
Rumpus: No moonshiners.
Rumpus: So you don’t have a genre for your album?
Byrne: One of my reactions to it listening to it after it was all done was that it sounds in some ways like a bluegrass album. Or, maybe, “quiet intricate urban acoustic music.” We have used that phrase.
Rumpus: Would the sound get bigger for a subsequent album? Right now it’s so perfect as it is. But is it worth trying to make it bigger?
Rogers: I’ve actually been approached by a few people who are like, you know, have you thought about a bass player or drummer. And I said to one of these people, there are no plans right now to do more. But I have to admit it might be kind of fun. I wouldn’t rule anything out, but I’m kind of proud of what we can accomplish together. There’s a voodoo. But I don’t know, a drummer or a bassist might be interesting but it certainly wouldn’t be a rock-n-roll kit drummer. I would be more interested to find, if there was an additional instrument, how that person would fit. I don’t know. We like space. It’s hard to find these musicians who are amenable to pulling back. Especially in New York, often times they’re on stage with you as a human walking business card. Somebody in that audience is going to come up to them and say, hey, you want to play a thing next week.
Photos of Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne © Shervin Lainez.
Photo of Gordon Ashworth © Giles Clement.