Old Fire :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On John Mark Lapham’s second release under the moniker Old Fire Voids, the musician and filmmaker creates a sprawling and meditative odyssey through the darkest corners of the West Texas towns that continues to spark his imagination. A guest-filled journey with vocal and lyrical contributions by Bill Callahan, Adam Torres, Emily Cross and Julia Holter, Lapham pulls elements from post-rock, avant-country, spiritual jazz, and murky drones to soundtrack eroding structures that cast shadows in the desert for nefarious characters to hide. 

To build its towering and dreamlike soundscapes, Lapham used a number of different recording techniques. He sampled from different existing projects, built inventive loops, and passed files and instructions to a murderers row of in-demand musical collaborators including pedal-steel player Bob Hoffnar, guitarist Alex Hutchins, ambient composer Wayne Robert Thomas, keyboardist Christian Madden, Warren Defever of the experimental rock band His Name Is Alive,  saxophonist Joseph Shabason, drummers Joe Ryan and Robb Kidd, and the legendary Austin-based multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris. 

The album has a cinematic sequence, as narratives of these disappearing towns bleeds into to a four-part instrumental ambient suite comprised of pedal-steel samples and loops that acts as the album’s climax. We caught up with Lapham to discuss the creation of the album and the influences behind it’s rich narrative.  | p king

Aquarium Drunkard: This new Old Fire album Voids was just released. How are you feeling now that it’s out in the world? 

John Mark Lapham: A sense of relief. I was thinking way too much about it. It’s been weird because we finished mixing it [in 2022]. So, it’s just been kind of sitting there waiting for the label and everyone else working on it to kind of get their stuff together. I kind of forgot about it for a long time. Once the release date started inching up, I make videos for living on top of the music thing, so I was making a lot of little social media videos and things and we made a couple of music videos for it. Doing all of that stuff has been really consuming. It’s always tight deadlines no matter what seems to happen. So it’s been a little stressful. I think my other work has been suffering from it. I’m kind of glad that it’s kind of all out there now and I don’t have to really do anything too time intensive with that anymore.

AD: I have a friend who’s a video editor and he’s one of the most patient people I know. I’m wondering if that’s a common trait with film work and if you feel it transfers over to making the kind of meticulously layered music you make? 

John Mark Lapham: I wouldn’t know. I’m very impatient person. [Laughs] For me, It’s just sort of like diverting energy and diverting focus. It’s sort of like peeing and then having to stop midstream. I work for the school district here in Abilene, doing video production as my day job. I get up earlier in the morning and work on either music or video production stuff. I make little animated music videos for bands, on top of everything else. I get up early and either work on the music video thing, or I work on Old Fire things, or whatever. Then, I have to stop abruptly and then go make little videos about kindergarteners or whatever. When I’m doing it and when I’m stopping abruptly, it’s kind of almost painful. It’s just so frustrating because you get all this flow going, where you’re really in the zone and things are materializing and it’s super creative and exciting. Then, you have to cut it off and then go get dressed and go to work doing something completely different. Sometimes I feel kind of resentful. I just want to stay in this fun creative workspace. But then I get there and I actually really like making videos about kindergarteners and things. It’s kind of fun in a very, very different way. So it’s a weird sort of dichotomy.

AD: You worked on this album with many different collaborators in mostly remote sessions. As the pandemic eroded so many things in our lives, I’ve talked to so many musicians who have fell on one side of the other on the pros and cons of making music without having to practice as a band. Was making music this way pleasurable for you? 

John Mark Lapham: 95% of the time, I totally embrace it. I’m a programmer and producer more than a musician. I will sit at my computer and just cut audio up all day and rearrange things and sample things and do stuff like that. A lot of it will end up turning in something. Sometimes, it won’t. Nobody wants to sit there and watch me do that. It would just be torture. I guess if I had a choice in the matter, maybe it’d be fun to try a new method of making music but I really like being in that space where I can just kind of work in my own realm and do stuff. This the way I do it. There was never a hope that I would be able to do something like that on the Old Fire album because every vocalists I worked with lived in a different place. Everyone [who played on the record] lived in a different town.

So I can’t imagine what that would look like if I tried to get the same people together in a room to play. It would be so weird. I just imagine it’d be chaos and lots of confusion. I think it’s nice that I can send something to somebody and they just kind of mull it over and then when they feel inspired they put down something and then send it back to me and then I can kind of do the same thing and kind of go back and forth on that. But with my other band MEIN, there’s more of a band element to that. Occasionally we do get together because we did  tour for a while and there was a couple of moments where we tried some new ideas in the studio together which is really rare for me. That was kind of fun. But I think maybe if there’s a third Old Fire album—which I think there’s going to be—I think that I’d like to try an element of that, where I at least get a couple of people together and start hashing ideas. A hybrid model would be really nice.

AD: So when you send over an idea to different musicians, what does the skeletal idea of the song look like in the early stages? 

John Mark Lapham: It really varies from track to track. A lot of the songs on Voids are really sort of extensions of another song on the album. For a lot of them, I was working on a song and I had so much material that I was like “oh, I could actually kind of change this around and turn it into something new.” So, it turns into something completely different. A different version of the song.

I do a lot of sampling. So, I will have a sort of rhythm track down usually, or a loop of some sort. I have to work with very open-minded understanding people because sometimes, I’ll send people something really abstract. It will be like a strange looping noise or just like a riff or something that I’ve messed with. And then I’ll say, “Here, take this away, have fun with it.” Then they’ll do something. A lot of the seeds for this new album were actually born because I was doing a remix a few years ago for a friend of mine and I had all this material recorded for it. I had lots of steel guitar, which is all of the steel guitar that’s on Voids came from this remix and all the harp that’s on the album came from this remix and a few other things. The remix  just never happened. They never released it. So I had all this material and so I just started sampling and playing with all that material. That’s how like that whole instrumental section like the last half of the album (“Void” parts 1-IV) or whatever that all came from that those remix sessions.

AD: You co-wrote lyrics with a number of guest vocalists. Did you enjoy that process? How is it co-writing lyrics with someone like Bill Callahan? 

John Mark Lapham: Again, every song is different. Obviously, every personality is different. With Bill Callahan, “When I Was In My Prime” is the first one he sings on the album. That’s a traditional folk song that we appropriated and we pretty much left the lyrics as they were except we changed just a few lines of it. We kind of worked on that together. Then the next song that he things on is “Corpus,” he wrote all the lyrics for that one. And then he go the third one “Don’t You Go” is a cover. I don’t know Bill really well. We only met because of this collaboration. So I didn’t really feel that comfortable going and changing his lyrics. So pretty much what he came up with. I was I was alright with. Then with Adam [Torres], I sent him a lot of lyric ideas that were not set in stone at all. I said, “Here are the themes I’m looking at. Here’s the sort of imagery I’m thinking about, blah-blah.” It was like, see what you can do with this and feel free to change things or write your own things. He took some of my ideas, and then just wrote his lyrics around that, so that was a little more equal. With Emily Krause, who things on “Blue Star”, she and I kind of sent them back and forth constantly. We worked on them together. Kind of like Adam, I sent her a lot of lyrical ideas, imagery, and what the concept of the song was or what it meant. And then she sent me some ideas back and then we did it back and forth. So that was pretty equal. And then Julia Holter, I just sampled her vocal. 

AD: For this album you set out to create a narrative around the decaying towns you grew up near in West Texas. Can you tell me a bit about the inspirations that went into your writing? It seems like you wrote about towns that are in many ways being left behind. 

John Mark Lapham: A little bit. Not so much them getting “left behind.” I just feel somewhat obsessed with the sort of dark mysterious corners of the state. A lot of it is fictional, in my mind. A lot of it is writing stories, or creating sounds that evoke, in my mind anyway, these mysterious dark corners of Texas that nobody really knows about where things happen. It’s sort of like if you could place Twin Peaks inside of Texas, what that would look like. I imagine eccentric, mysterious characters and brutal murders and, you know, shady people in really bad places. Dive bars and things. [I was] writing stories about what happens with those people in those places. But I’m definitely informed by it because I grew up in West Texas. That’s part of me. The sort of decay and stale timeless air of those places. I find that that sort of thing really intriguing more than like a place like Austin that’s really beautiful and exciting and electric. I like that in an entirely different way but doesn’t really inspire me just for writing.

AD: I know exactly what you mean by that. At a certain point with these “cool” places it can seem like the attraction is all there is. 

John Mark Lapham: Yeah. It’s like a theme park. Which I mean, I’d like to visit it and partake in that. But you know, I like to leave it as well.

AD: Well, I was wondering because there is a line that Bill wrote to the song “Corpus,” that really stuck out to me: “I love you more than any form of the future is for certain.” Knowing that you were influenced by these kinds of towns, was there any direction you gave Bill before writing those lyrics? 

John Mark Lapham: I can’t remember what discussions we had specifically before he wrote anything. He knew the name of the album and I think he knew that I was kind of going for. A lot of my inspiration for the album is like, you know, pining over what no longer exists. Whether it be someone that’s died or relationship has died or a way of living or, like you said, a town that was once something and now it’s just nothing. I think he kind of knew those things but I didn’t go into detail about how it needs to be this or it needs to talk about this, or whatever. I think maybe he and I kind of have similar sort of viewpoints about what it’s like to live here and are familiar with that sort of landscape. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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