She’s A Keeper Of The Fire – Buffy Sainte-Marie (A Medley…)

On the eve of her birthday, a journey through some lesser-known songs of the inimitable Indigenous artist and activist’s Vanguard years. Nine albums of groundbreaking folk and country, with diversions into pioneering electronic rock and searching orchestral pop—always with her singular perspective and searing vibrato leading the way. words / k evans + art/ b hettinga

Buffy Sainte-Marie :: She’s A Keeper Of The Fire

The Jewels Of Hanalei
Little Wheel Spin And Spin
Better To Find Out For Yourself
The Carousel
The Piney Wood Hills
Many A Mile
They Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dawg Around
She Used To Wanna Be A Ballerina
Guess Who I Saw In Paris
It’s My Way

Previously: Stardust – Joni Mitchell 1982-2007 (A Mixtape)

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.

Charles Ditto :: In Human Terms

An experimental minimalist from the Texas hill country, Charles Ditto self-released In Human Terms on his own label in 1987. He calls it “nootropic deconstructed pop minimalism,” and it slots nicely with the spacey ambient worlds of Michele Mercure, Pauline Anna Strom, and Savant. Picture round shapes floating through a light fog and you’re in the right astral territory.

With selected catalog having been reissued via a host of labels, Ditto’s work has increasingly found a new audience; most recently via a limited edition vinyl release of In Human Terms. We caught up with Ditto at home, about an hour southwest of Austin, TX, to discuss the work – some 30+ years after its initial release.

Aquarium Drunkard: At the time of the gestation and recording of the album, did you think of yourself as part of the small scene of homemade electronic music, or were you operating in more of a vacuum?

Charles Ditto: Definitely in more of a vacuum at first. Then I found a small ‘space music’ network. Several musical acts, poets, dancers, and a couple of cool clubs that gave us a night a week.

AD: What were your musical aims during this period? Was there a conscious nod to the ambient music in, say, the mold of Brian Eno / Erik Satie (i.e. ‘furniture music’)?

Charles Ditto: I was listening to a lot of Eno’s ambient stuff, and Satie’s music has always intrigued me—there are many nods in there—but, honestly, I was just having fun. I wasn’t sure, at the beginning, what would happen or if anything would be released. I didn’t play the music for most of my friends.

AD: This idea of records receiving a second life via reissue has become more prominent of late. Prior to this, had you spent much time revisiting this particular work since its original release?

Charles Ditto: Only rarely. Occasionally, a guest might request it. Until two years ago, I had been giving the LPs away for free. I thought it was a dead project. I’m very grateful to Telephone Explosion, Passat Continu, Nino Tomorrow, and Cudighi Records for their efforts in reissuing my music and helping promote interest in original music that isn’t commercial.

AD: Three decades removed, are you able to view In Human Terms a bit outside of yourself? If so, what are some of things that strike you most?

Charles Ditto: No. I’m still right there in it. I see no escape. Even so, what I like about it compared with my other records is it’s singularity of space—like an uninterrupted thought. It’s very focused. It just happened that way. I had a very peaceful environment.

AD: I first heard the record context free, based solely on its content and artwork. I assumed it was via a European musician. I’m curious, how does Texas work itself into your work, consciously or otherwise?

Charles Ditto: Interesting question! With regard to this record, it’s the wide open space and the pervasive sense of contentment.

AD: Lastly, what are some records (old or new) that have really struck you, and stuck with you, since In Human Terms original release?

Charles Ditto: I continue to love the music of Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt on the classical side, but, mostly these days, I’m drawn to traditional and indigenous music from all over the world, really. The more authentic and primitive the better. I am, though, planning to refurbish my MIDI studio and see if something fun and interesting happens – now that there may be interest.

Spencer Doran on Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Environmental, Ambient & New Age Music 1980-1990

Spencer Doran’s home is as spare and tastefully appointed as the music he creates with his friend Ryan Carlile under the name Visible Cloaks. The array of plants surrounding an unused fireplace. An inviting stack of Japanese magazines resting on the floor. The poster for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders on the wall. The thoughtfully chosen furniture. Nothing looks or feels out of place.

That goes for the soundtrack for the grey morning that I visited Doran’s house recently. Spinning on his turntable throughout my visit were a series of beautiful Japanese albums from the ‘80s, crafted by composers and performers whose work nestled into a lush, cozy spot fed by the concurrent streams of new age and early ambient music and made almost entirely using synthesizers. The kind of sounds that can bring a hush to a room or sent a small shiver of calm running through the brain.

The records that he was sharing—by artists like Takashi Kokubo and Hiroshi Yoshimura—were just a few of the dozens that he picked from to make up the tracklist for Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Environmental, Ambient & New Age Music 1980-1990, a new compilation out on Light In The Attic. The collection looks at this substrata of Japanese music, born out of a growing interest in new computer and synthesizer technology, and, in part, conceived as a reaction to a craze for the piano music of Erik Satie following a series of concerts that took place in 1975. As Doran writes in his wonderfully detailed liner notes for the set, “A whole new generation of Japanese musicians would find influence both in his calmly spacious piano pieces and his visionary (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) concept of furniture music—a music made to intermingle with the sounds and environment of everyday life.”

Doran invited me into his home to talk about this subgenre of Japanese music, where it came from, who supported it, and why the world is finally catching up to it now.

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell me where you interest in this strain of Japanese music started. How did that begin?

Spencer Doran: When I was in my late teens, I did this 12” that came out in Japan. I sort of had this weird, really early music career where I did this string of five albums that only came out there. I had this weird Japanese fan base before I ever released any music in America. I toured over there and have all these connections to people there. I didn’t really get deep into the stuff until way after that, but that’s where I found [Ryuichi] Sakamoto’s music and [Yellow Magic Orchestra] and those sort of things for the first time. I got really into this record B-2 Unit, this Sakamoto record that came out in 1981. It was just finding more about the music and realizing, “Oh, there’s something interesting going on here.”

The big breakthrough for me that led me into this world was hearing the music of Hiroshi Yoshimura, who was this person that, at that time, there was not a whole lot of information in the West. Even people in Japan didn’t really seem to know or care about his music very much. There’s a record Air In Resort that you can actually find. It’s still a cheap record. They made thousands and thousands of copies. It was a promotional thing for [Japanese cosmetics company] Shiseido, for this perfume. It comes in this plastic bag, and they sprayed the perfume in the bag so all the copies smell kind of weird. I found a copy and thought it was amazing and wanted to find all the music that this guy did. And then, in relation to him, and Satoshi Ashikawa who was the conceptual backbone to a lot of this movement. He released Hiroshi’s first record and did this record called Still Way. And then researching the socio-economic background of what was happening in the country at that time, figuring out, “Why was this music happening? Why was there such a cradle for it?” I did a couple of mixes that got popular and someone from Light In The Attic approached me about doing this project. Then I went even deeper down the rabbit hole.

AD: I had no idea about that early music you released in did that happen?

Spencer Doran: It feels kind of distant, but I used to do instrumental hip-hop when I was a teenager. I made this 12” that people played in clubs. And there was this guy Peter Agoston who lived in the town where I grew up, in Arcata, California, and he ran this record label Female Fun, but he was the guy who put out all the MF Doom instrumental records. He was this writer, ran a label, and was kind of my manager. So we went over there to do a tour.

The funny thing is that I only did one record in that style. When I went to college, I got more into making experimental music, things on the ambient spectrum or kind of Fourth World-y. So most of the releases I did over there were like that but they wanted me to do the other music. That’s how my music career ended there. But it’s been reignited since I’ve been doing Visible Cloaks. Now, Japan is maybe the biggest fanbase there. We just did a record with Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano, which is coming out in April, people who are on the comp, and we’re going to do a bunch of shows over there.

Connecting with Yoshio really accelerated my research for this because he was very much a man on the scene and he knew everyone and was kind of an archivist and has all this material. Getting to spend a lot of time with him was clutch for this project, crystallizing it into what it became.

AD: When you were visiting Japan to play shows, even early on, were you collecting a lot of these records at the time?

Spencer Doran: Not so much. I got deeper into this substrain living in the U.S. and trading records with Japanese dealers that I knew. Finding things online. A fair amount of it, in the later ‘80s, everything become CDs. It’s changing now, but you used to be able to get those for one yen on Japanese Amazon. It was a combination and digging by proxy. But then I started going back over there more recently, meeting with Yoshio and doing that record.

The piece he did that’s on the comp was this environmental music/sound design for this post-modern building called The Spiral, which is in this big shopping district in Aoyama in western Tokyo. That building’s still there and they still play his music in there.

AD: When you got approached to do this, was it pretty easy to figure out what tracks to choose?

Spencer Doran: We cast a really wide net initially. I did this mix called “Music Interiors,” which was really the blueprint that became this. It has, not necessarily the same tracks, but a lot of the same artists. It was specifically more vaporous and airy and was trying to investigate that aesthetic of consumerist culture that the music grew out of. This project took about four years from its initial tracklist. Three-fourths of that was figuring out the licensing, which was a total nightmare. A fair amount of the things we wanted to put on there, we couldn’t get the rights to.

Also, there’s this guy Daisuke Hinata, who was in this band Interior who is on the comp and whose brother Toshifumi Hinata is also on there, he lives in Los Angeles and is good friends with the guy who ran Alpha Records. That was another stumbling block, getting all the things we wanted from Alpha, like the Sakamoto track and a couple of others, which are only on the LP version because we could only get the LP rights for a lot of stuff. The streaming version is even fewer tracks because there were only so many that we could get digital rights to. That’s kind of common because some of those albums are already on streaming and they don’t want these dual placements.

AD: What’s interesting to me is that this compilation feels like the perfect companion to this other comp that came out recently [Tokyo Nights (Female J-Pop Boogie Funk: 1981 to 1988)], which looked at the same economic boom but as reflected through a different angle. Music that was trying to reflect the modern jet-set lifestyle of some Japanese people.

Spencer Doran: The funny thing is that it’s mostly the same musicians. Sakamoto and Hosono were a part of this crew of people that were like the Wrecking Crew of the Japanese pop scene in the late ‘70s going into the ‘80s. Yasuaki Shimizu was another person who plays sax on all these boogie records but was also making this ambient music being used in commercials at the time. The people in Interior were session musicians, too.

The way I view it is that there are three different strains or scenes of music within this [kankyō ongaku] scene. There’s all these musicians coming from the pop universe, the Hosono/Sakamoto/YMO axis. There’s all these musicians come from an avant-garde background. That’s like Ashikawa and Yoshimura and people who were part of the post-Fluxus, late ‘70s Tokyo scene. Then there’s all these musicians coming from the psychedelic rock world, like the Far East Family Band, which Akari Ito and Kitaro were in and made a record produced by Klaus Schulze. They went the more traditional new age direction of making healing music and that sort of thing whereas the people in the avant-garde world ended up being part of the architectural design, which is another current that’s running through this. People that were hired to do sound design consulting for physical spaces like The Spiral. And then Hosono and Sakamoto, who made what I traditionally think of as ambient music.

AD: How much of the impact did the technology of the time have on the sound of this music?

Spencer Doran: YMO was the first group to use an 808 on Japanese record. And because there’s such a direct connection to the corporate world and proximity that sort of stuff. These people were the first to get these instruments that were coming out. Takashi Kokubo had a deal with all these synth companies where he would be basically play testing their instruments before they were even released. There’s this very immediate use of technology that definitely shapes the way it sounds. Especially Hideki Matsutake, who did the third track on the comp and was the synth programmer for YMO. His aesthetic that you can hear going through Japanese pop music in that time. It’s very much a command of technology. You look at the liner notes for a lot of these records and it will say, “Computer programming by Hideki Matsutake.” That’s a big part of why this music sounds so contemporary still. It was ahead of its time because people were able to get so deep into these things.

AD: It was interesting too to read how tied in so much of this music was to commercial interests. I’m thinking not only of the piece that Yoshio made for The Spiral but the piece on the comp that came from an album that was given away by Sanyo when someone bought an air conditioning unit.

Spencer Doran: That’s very much the context that this exists in, this type of capitalist, consumerist culture. One of the really interesting things is that it’s all heavily subsidized. These companies would get a tax write-off for funding the arts. Once that collapsed in the early ‘90s, all these scenes just disappeared.

AD: I suppose I should be surprised that almost none of this music really made it to the U.S. Interior’s album was released by Windham Hill and YMO toured here a bit but beyond that…

Spencer Doran: When we initially started getting in touch with these artists, they were amazed that anyone cared. Like Takashi Kokubo, when we got in touch with him, he didn’t even remember making this album. We saw he was asking his friends on Facebook, “Does anyone remember this record I did in 1988?”

AD: Was it easy to track down the master tapes for all of the tracks you used on the comp?

Spencer Doran: People are pretty good about having good archives. It’s a cultural thing that people are pretty organized with their catalog. Yosuke Kitazawa, who works for Light In The Attic in the licensing department, is second generation Japanese, but grew up in a Japanese household, so he’s dually fluent. He’s been clutch in making this and the Hosono project too. He also put together [Even A Tree Can Shed Tears], the comp of Japanese folk music that they did…If we didn’t have someone dually fluent, it would have been impossible.

With Joe Hisaishi, we initially wanted to license a piece from one of the soundtracks he did for Studio Ghibli but they have a rule where they will only license that music as a full album. So I had to go, “Oh, I have this record that you did before he even started making soundtracks.” This pop record that had one ambient track on it.

AD: Were there any more situations like that, of having to cherry pick songs from an otherwise more traditional pop album that would fit the theme of this collection?

Spencer Doran: YMO’s another great example of that. I was trying to illustrate that the philosophy behind this music had seeped into popular culture and you would see it in the direction that pop productions took and the one-off tracks on records. Becoming part of the public consciousness through these mega pop albums.

AD: You wrote a lot of the notes in the booklet for this comp as well. How much of that information did you already have and how much did you have to dig and research?

Spencer Doran: It was a mix. We did interviews with a lot of the people and we did a bunch of research. What’s really cool is that this music has been really well researched and written about in Japan. It was just a matter of getting things translated. Hiroshi Yoshimura wrote four books about his musical process. There’s a book that Satoshi Ashikawa was involved in called Kankyō Ongaku, What Is Ambient Music? that has all these essays written by him and Midori Takada. There’s a discography in the back that has a guide to Western music like this but there’s all these same Japanese records that ended up on the comp.

Then in the middle of me doing this, this book by Paul Roquet, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self, came out, which is a great critical theory analysis of the music of that time and film and installation art. A lot of what he was really deeply researching were aspects I was really interested in, threads that I was on that he helped fleshed out. Especially the stuff about the influence of Satie and how these performances of his music ignited this Satie craze in Japan which is what helps crystallize a lot of the ideas behind this music.

AD: Do you have any sense of why Satie made such a connection with Japanese audiences and listeners at that time?

Spencer Doran: That’s a little more nebulous. Brian Eno’s resonance, which happened around the same time, kind of makes sense because he has this Cage-ian influence. And then John Cage was, in turn, influenced by Zen Buddhism and [D.T. Suzuki’s] lectures at Columbia in the ‘30s. That makes sense to me, but exactly why Satie resonates is harder to pinpoint. But the same people that were doing those performances were part of the ‘70s avant-garde, who in turn influenced the first generation of these musicians.

AD: It’s also worth noting, I think, that there is only one female artist featured on this comp.

Spencer Doran: Yeah, I tried to balance it a little better. But Midori Takada’s music all got blocked and Ichiko Hashimoto, who played keyboards for YMO, her music we couldn’t get. Even if we had gotten all the songs we wanted, it still would’ve been uneven. You need to have a degree of cultural relativism going into this. It is very reflective of the patriarchal dynamic of the record industry at that time. The female figures were the singers and the people who did the lyric writing, but the producers were a very male dynamic.

AD: Are you aware of this scene impacting artists or producers, especially in the ‘90s after the scene dissipated?

Spencer Doran: Not that I’m really aware of. Definitely Hosono has been a huge influence in Japanese popular music, and you can feel that in the work of Nobukazu Takemura and people like that. But as far as the more underground musicians, not to my knowledge. Now, it’s becoming a thing that younger Japanese musicians are getting into. There’s all these neo-kankyō ongaku music that’s happening. [H. Takahashi] is this architectural designer who started making ambient music. And there’s this great artist named Enitowka who made this record that was commissioned by a tea company with field recordings of the fields where the tea is grown, incorporating that into the ambient music he was making. It’s funny because with vaporwave or whatever, there’s a huge interest in Japanese culture. In itself , it’s this weird fetishization of this cultural history that’s getting refracted back into the culture itself.

AD: Besides your interest in it and the work that you do in Visible Cloaks that is influenced by artists like those on the compilation, this music seems to be having a wider resurgence right now. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

Spencer Doran: I think it’s just a matter of this music finally being heard. There was no way for people to hear it for so long. But with the internet and reissue culture, people have a really easy access point to it. I think the music inherently resonates with people, not because of the way it’s being delivered but because of the quality of the music itself. People like to talk about, “Oh there’s some sort of YouTube algorithm that’s accelerating the popularity of these records and the reissue labels are exploiting this.” I really don’t agree with that.

People also like to talk about it, like, “The contemporary digital environment makes people need self-care or something,” which I really don’t buy into. I don’t really use this music as a tool. That’s an interesting thing Roquet talks about in his book is ambient music being this neoliberal response to people using media as a tool for self-management. I think it exists as art external from any use it might have. I think it’s great that people can find that sort of use for it, but I think it has a deeper meaning. words/r ham

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.

A.A. Bondy :: Images Of Love

Here comes Auguste Arthur Bondy out of the wrath of the California wildfires toting Enderness, his first album in eight years. “Images of Love” is an intoxicatingly spare, private-press-R&B-style affair built on skittering percussion, warm synthesizer and a locked bass riff. Bondy’s weathered tenor tells of surrender, death, and the nuances of companionship. That synth doubles back and looms larger midway through the track. And with a quick snap at the end, the Lafayette County gloam slips into true nightfall and all that comes with it. There’s a truck cruising 278 with this one on repeat, broken taillight be damned. words / j steele

Music For The Deluge: A Sonic Meditation

The following is a sonic meditation crafted during an exceptionally fierce 24 hour downpour in northeast Los Angeles. An imaginary hour and half instrumental score…pan-global jazz, ambient and beyond. Winter, 2019.

Oregon – Intro
Nik Bärtsch – Modul 6
G.S. Schray – District Lizards
Joel Lyssarides – Semblance
Michel Bisceglia – Dry Water
Nils Petter Molvær – Lamna Reef
Goldmund – Migration
Franz Koglmann, Gary Peacock and Paul Bley – Touching (Take 1)
Lars Danielsson & Leszek Mozdz – Berlin
Omar Sosa – Aguas
Sarah Louise – R Mountain
Ditto – Eastern
Aqueduct Ensemble – Potter’s View North
Szun Waves – Temple
Sam Gendel & Sam Wilkes – BOA
Joseph Shabason – Aytche
Charlie Haden – Nightfall
Shinya Fukumori Trio – Hoshi Meguri No Uta
The Cosmic Range – Breathing Water
Ditto – World Anthem
João Paulo Esteves da Silva, Mário Franco & Samuel Rohrer – Trusting Heart/Cosmos
Lars Jansson Trio – To Have Or To Be

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.

The Lagniappe Sessions :: Hand Habits

Lagniappe (la·gniappe) noun ˈlan-ˌyap,’ – 1. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit. 2. Something given or obtained as a gratuity or bonus.

Hand Habits, the working sobriquet of Meg Duffy, first entered our sphere in 2015 backing Kevin Morby at a house party. Their weapon of choice is the guitar, an instrument they wield with aplomb. However, to focus too heavily on this one attribute is to miss the greater whole of the songwriter. On the eve of their sophomore lp, Placeholder, Duffy cut a three-track Lagniappe Session for Aquarium Drunkard. Recorded over a three month period in Los Angeles and New York City, the selections simultaneously echo Hand Habits roots and aspirations. The artist in their own words, below …

Hand Habits :: Albatross (Fleetwood Mac)

People love to either forget about Peter Green or love to say they only like Fleetwood Mac for the early Peter Green records. Of course Christine and Stevie, along with all the various iterations, hit hard song after song. But it’s this record and song that really prove to me that the essence (swirls scotch around in glass) of Fleetwood Mac was conceived long before “Dreams” was dreamt. The lyricism of the guitar is extremely crushing. It feels symphonic and hopeful. When I was learning this tune, I realized that there’s an ‘hour long loop’ of “Albatross” on youtube…and the song really allows for repetition. Recorded with Chris Nelson and Branden Stroup in downtown LA.

Hand Habits :: Only Living Boy In New York (Simon And Garfunkel)

To me, this song is perfect. The second time I heard it was (fittingly) via a cover, courtesy of a band that used to exist in Albany called The Red Lions. They covered it in a packed out attic, and at the time I thought it was the best band I’d ever heard in person. The show exists in my memory as a warm, teary picture of nostalgia. A very good friend of mine who has since passed on was there, and we both just stood smiling in awe of the harmonies during the song’s closing. Gigantic and everlasting. This recording, my cover, was done in NYC with Sam Owens right before he moved out of his place in the city to live upstate. It felt right — a freezing cold Sunday in NY — just me, Sam and Lina Tullgren and a tape machine.

Hand Habits :: When The Devil’s Loose (AA Bondy)

The first time I heard AA Bondy’s When The Devil’s Loose coincided with a lot of other firsts in my life. I had just moved to Albany after living in Schenectady. I got my first job bar-backing at a venue. And I started writing songs of my own after having backed many other songwriter’s bands. I sang along with this record many a night in my tiny brick bedroom with a window that faced a brick wall. My good friend Emily Sprague showed it to me and we would harmonize along with the songs. The rhythm section crushes me with its simplicity. When I first moved to Los Angeles, listening to this record felt like an old friend; complete with a housemate in the basement putting up with my singing along. I found out that Bondy was living outside of the city, looked him up, and had the pleasure of sharing some of my songs with him. He’s a mystery to me, still. I made this recording in my old bedroom in Glendale. I think you can hear my upstairs neighbors walking around.

Lagniappe Sessions Archives / imagery via d norsen

Tim Presley’s White Fence :: Phone

The artists that tend to intrigue and hold our attention are rarely one dimensional. They build worlds. They create myths. Often they savvy the importance of both—for themselves as well as their audience. Tim Presley understands this. Having followed his work for more than a decade, through various permutations of his craft/muse, he continues to evolve via his paintings, his music, and his very presentation of the self.

2019 introduced the artist’s latest incarnation, appending his full name name to the existing cloak of White Fence. See: Tim Presley’s White Fence – I Have To Feed Larry’s Hawk. Aesthetically, it’s all Presley, yet the fingerprints of Drinks (his ongoing collaboration with Cate Le Bon) are evident. In contrast to the earlier White Fence output, the record feels woozier. Gauzier. The below is the album’s second track, “Phone”—a piano-driven lament that feels like an unearthed Peel session from the mid-70s, à la John Cale.

Bandcamping :: Winter 2019

Our quarterly Bandcamping roundup is back for 2019. As a digital institution it’s hard to beat Bandcamp. It’s ridiculously easy to use, it puts money directly into artists’ (and labels’) pockets and there’s a seemingly endless amount of music to discover there — new, old and in-between. Of course, that endlessness can be a little overwhelming, so here are 10 recommended releases to dig into. words / t wilcox

Michael O’Shea – S/T: A necessary reissue of a hard-to-find LP. Michael O’Shea’s only record was released in 1982 via the Dome label (run by post-punk band Wire). It’s a totally sui generis thing, featuring O’Shea’s own handmade instrument. His incredible sound apparently comes from “an old door, 17 strings, chopsticks and combining them with phasers, echo units and amplification.” Weird and amazing. It’ll conjure up thoughts of gamelan orchestras, mystical Celtic dulcimers, wild Indian ragas, avant-minimalism … and probably some other far-flung sounds too. Both ancient and futuristic all at once.

Dachshund – S/T: A sax / synth / drums journey! Dachshund is Peter Webb (sax, synth) and John Gregg (drums), and this cassette/download captures them in full flight in Athens and Atlanta last year. Two 20-minute multidirectional improv workouts! You’ll love it. Things kick off with a dreamy/droney In A Silent Way kind of feel, before rolling into slightly freakier zones (shades of Rashied Ali and John Coltrane’s duets?). Webb and Gregg both float around each other wonderfully, occasionally locking into a groove, but mostly keeping things loose and exploratory.

Open Field – Pigtail/Greener: A short-but-oh-so-sweet offering from digital single from Open Field. “Pigtail” is a soaring instrumental – a great soundtrack for driving into the Rocky Mountains on a wintry afternoon (but it’ll probably work as a great soundtrack for driving anywhere). And “Greener” is a lovely little slice of chiming psych-folk. Very good stuff; hopefully there’s more Open Field action on the horizon.

Alison Cotton – All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre: This one takes us across the frozen borderline. Alison Cotton’s haunting All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre blends early music modalities with modern minimalism (a la Tony Conrad and the original Dream Syndicate), creating a thoroughly absorbing listening experience. Droning violas, minor key melodies, (mostly) wordless vocals … It’s definitely similar to the otherworldly sounds that Nico and John Cale made on The Marble Index and Desertshore – always a good thing in my book. Music made for flickering candlelight, shadowy cathedrals and esoteric rituals.

Blades of Joy – S/T: I was hipped to Blades of Joy via Doug Mosurock’s new-ish e-newsletter Heathen Disco. (Lots of good writing there, you should definitely sign up!) This Bay Area four-piece makes me think of classic Paisley Underground janglers like Opal and the Rain Parade, but with a more powerful rhythm section driving things along, not to mention some tasty guitar heroics. Lead singer Inna has a dreamy voice that’s nicely contrasted by the revved-up (almost Superchunk-y) nature of a lot of the songs. Blades of Joy can write a beautiful Red House Painters-esque ballad, too, however – check out the gorgeously melancholy “22″.

Anthony Shadduck – Quartet / Double Quartet: A double-sided delight from LA-based bassist Anthony Shadduck. The first session is an intimate, exploratory affair, with Shadduck joined by Tortoise’s Jeff Parker on guitar, Cathlene Pineda on piano and Dylan Ryan on drums. The quartet tackles tunes by Ornette Coleman, Paul Motian and Chris Schlarb (who also produced the record at his Big Ego studio in Long Beach, CA). A very pleasing zone between free-flowing improv and more straight-ahead approaches. Especially good is the atmospheric version of Motian’s “Story of Maryam,” which drifts along in a mysterious and wonderful way, coming together for a chiming chorus. Side B is a blowout — two sprawled out jams with a double quartet that recalls the sound of Sun Ra’s Arkestra promenading through interstellar space.

Oren Ambarchi & Jim O’Rourke with special guest U-zhaan – Hence:
Underground adventurers Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke have been collaborating for several years now. For their latest effort, they’ve teamed up with U-zhaan, the Japanese experimental composer and tabla player (tabla-ist?). Hence features two lengthy tracks, with the trio heading deep into unclassifiable territories. Warm hums, buzzing drones, whirling interplay, strange overtones … it’s all pretty killer, but the whole thing reaches its peak somewhere towards the end of the second side, when Ambarchi, O’Rourke and U-zhaan find some beautiful common ground.

High Aura’d – If I’m Walking in the Dark, I’m Whispering: More deep sounds from John Kolodij’s High Aura’d – a stellar follow-up to his recommended 2017 LP No River Long Enough Doesn’t Contain A Bend. This one is made up of two lengthy and fully absorbing excursions. Jon is adept at atmosphere — at times you’ll think of Miles’ beautifully ominous “He Loved Him Madly;” at others, you’ll get a distinct whiff of Lynchian dread; or maybe a little of Uncle Neil’s Dead Man soundtrack comes to the fore; when the acoustic piano shows up, I got a pastoral Florian Fricke vibe. Whatever you get from If I’m Walking in the Dark, I’m Whispering, you’re going to enjoy.

Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt – Brace Up!: Brace Up! is the first in-studio collab between the extraordinary drummer Chris Corsano and the similarly extraordinary guitarist Bill Orcutt. One song title sums up the vibe nicely – “Amp vs Drum.” The short, spiky improvs here occasionally come across like a barroom brawl translated into sound, with Corsano’s superhuman playing clattering magnificently against Orcutt’s typically tangled string abuse. But there are also moments of weird harmonious loveliness — dig the ecstatic “She Punched A Hole In The Moon For Me.” So nice.

Thurston Moore w/ Tom Surgal – Klangfarbenmelodie.. And The Colorist Strikes Primitive: You may have heard of Thurston Moore from his work with such groups as The Coachmen, Ciccone Youth, Dim Stars and the Velvet Monkeys. Here, the guitarist teams up with experimental drummer Tom Surgal for 40 minutes of molten, megalithic free-noize that climbs to several extremely beautiful plateaus. This is actually a vintage recording from the mid-1990s which was released in very limited quantities in New Zealand back in the day. In other words, it’s new to almost everyone. Whatever – it is terrific.

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.

Further Exploration: Aquarium Drunkard / Bandcamping Archives

The Lagniappe Sessions :: Jonathan Wilson (Sawmill, Volume 1)

Lagniappe (la·gniappe) noun ˈlan-ˌyap,’ – 1. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit. 2. Something given or obtained as a gratuity or bonus.

Sawmill, Vol 1 is a collection of traditional songs and a few songs I have written, all recorded live to cassette on acoustic and nylon classical guitar. I used an old Pioneer hi-fi spring reverb, and made a little record the way I used to make demos in my early days in a dimly lit and damp basement apartment in NYC. This is a handpicked selection for Aquarium Drunkard from that collection….

Jonathan Wilson :: Wagoneer’s Lad

It was the Buell Kazee version, the earnest delivery of this song, with his voice and banjo that I listened to over and over in Topanga Canyon in the early ’00s. This banjo style mesmerizes me, so I decided to do a version live to cassette, with spring reverb galore.

Jonathan Wilson :: Davey Crockett

Davey Crockett, the man who wanted to abolish west point, and the only vote in the house against the “Indian Removal Act”. I wanted to sing his song sweetly and succinctly.

Jonathan Wilson :: I Went Out For A Ramble

This was a traditional song I only read the lyrics to, and devised a melody of my own. This was a spell when I was obsessed with Alan Lomax recordings, and the concept of him driving around catching songs in the trunk of his car, with the mobile rural capturing device. It is both endearing and alluring to think of such a time in American musical history.

Jonathan Wilson :: Skinny Legs, Short Skirt

This is an autobiographical tale written in the East Village, USA, composed in the little basement apartment I lived in on 13th and B. I had a kooky old building “Super” as my neighbor, who lived in a broom closet with a large German Shepard named “Lady”. Every time I walked into my little basement apartment the dog would try to Cujo-Style maul me. You can hear this spiteful beast in the intro, as her Manhattan-lifer, kook owner’s adoration permeates the first few bars.

Jonathan Wilson :: Railroad Boy

This was again Buell Kazee via Harry Smith, some of the weirder stark vocals and percolating banjo of the new weird American set. A weirder land than this we will never know. This was one of the first songs I learned to play on Clawhammer banjo, and one that I had to include in Sawmill, Vol 1.

Wilson embarks on a solo/acoustic tour this Sunday (2/17) in Nashville. Full dates, here. Lagniappe Sessions Archives / imagery via d norsen

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.  

Aquarium Drunkard Guide to ECM Records: The New Millennium

ECM is a record label that has managed to survive for half a century without making a single concession to mainstream tastes. If Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey was, according to film critic Michael Benson “an art film on a Hollywood budget,” it could be argued that ECM has long been a boutique label in the guise of a music industry behemoth. If you’ve been in a record store, you’ve seen ECM records.

While the two previous installments of Aquarium Drunkard’s ECM Records Guide compiled many of the label’s essential releases, this third installment focuses on the label’s contemporary output. The new millennium has seen the release of countless ECM titles that easily stand alongside the best of the Towners, Jarretts, Garbareks, Webers, Abercrombies, and Rypdals, and deserve far wider recognition.

The following playlist is culled exclusively from ECM albums released since 2006. In focusing on younger and relatively lesser-known players, We’ve omitted contemporary albums—most of them excellent—by ECM mainstays such as Keith Jarrett, Tomasz Stanko, Charles Lloyd, Gary Peacock, and Django Bates, among others. Additionally, the conspicuous absence on this list of Vijay Iyer, Tord Gustavsen, Chris Potter, and Craig Taborn, all of whom have enjoyed at least some degree of larger mainstream recognition in the U.S., is due only to spatial considerations and not a comment on the work of those artists. Audio clips within, full playlist at the bottom. words / j jackson toth

Wolfgang Muthspiel Quinet – Father and Sun: Muthspiel is an Austrian guitarist with a tremendous musical mind and a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of ideas. On his 2016 album Rising Grace he assembles a group of musicians who typify some of jazz music’s finest character traits: freedom, discipline, and curiosity. “Father and Sun” is a buoyant, contemplative tune showcasing the underlying virtuosity of Muthspiel’s sonically courageous group, which includes veterans Brad Mehldau on piano, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Brian Blade, and the young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Standing out amongst such a prestigious group would be a tall order for any young musician, but the empathic and lyrical Akimmusire not only holds his own here, but often steals the show. Though the album version of “Father and Sun” is achingly beautiful, the live version on Youtube, seen here, is even better.

Mats Eilertsen – March: On 2016’s Rubicon, bassist Eilertsen leads a septet that includes, among others, guitarist Robert Dahl and vibraphonist Rob Waring, each of whom lends a specifically noirish, almost post-rock feel to Eilertsen’s unusual and introspective music. Even a good critic could make a fool of themselves groping for the appropriate poetry to describe Eilertsen’s compositions, which are redolent of nature; it is music that despite a clear foundation in jazz sounds more rooted in the Earth than what might emanate from a bandstand. At over eight minutes in length, this groove-based piece in zero gravity is given ample time to breathe and develop; saxophonist Trygve Seim is particularly strong, adding a muscular element to this dreamy, ethereal music.

Benedikt Jahnel Trio – Sacred Silence: The list of great piano trios on ECM is long and daunting; if any whispers persist about this format being at a stylistic dead end, the small groups of Anat Fort, Colin Vallon, Wolfert Brederode, Giovanni Guidi, Ben Street, and Django Bates, to name just a few, do more than challenge that particular notion. Add to this esteemed group the young German pianist Benedikt Jahnel, whose 2012 release for the label, Equilibrium alternately accesses the balladic hauntedness of Paul Bley, the soft mellifluousness of Brad Mehldau, and the technical lucidity of Bobo Stenson. The melancholic “Sacred Silence” is a highlight, a spacious and impressionistic piece that could easily occupy the length of an entire album side and not overstay its welcome.

Avishai Cohen – Life and Death: Though it possesses a devotional, even sacramental component, the music of Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen somehow avoids preciousness at every turn. Cohen’s rounded, open tone is soft but not skeletal, perfectly suiting his striking, inviting compositions. “Life and Death” is a highlight of Cohen’s sensational 2016 album Into The Silence, a perfect example of both his melodicism and his mischief. Be sure to listen for pianist Yonathan Avishai’s brief and unexpected shift to rhythm and blues and back; it’s a thrilling, laugh-out-loud moment that suggests the ghost of Ray Charles descending on Studios La Buissonne for a single bar. Cohen is one of several of the label’s young stars, and with good reason; his best work is yet to come.

Jakob Bro – Song For Nicolai: If I had to choose a single latter-day ECM album to convince a skeptic that ECM’s output is as good as it has ever been, it would be 2018’s Returnings by Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. Augmenting his regular trio of Americans Joey Baron and Thomas Morgan with legendary trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg was an inspired decision; Mikkelborg immediately hones in on Bro’s aesthetic and adapts to it without sacrificing his immediately recognizable musical voice. The influence of Bill Frisell is evident in Bro’s looping phrases and arpeggios, as well as in his atmospheric probing, but Bro’s sweet, fragile melodies are all his own. Along with the Shinya Fukumori Trio’s For 2 Akis, Returnings is one of the ECM’s post-millennial masterpieces.

Anouar Brahem – Bahia: Whether pairing South American bandoneonists with German string quartets or Norwegian saxophonists with Medieval vocal ensembles, Manfred Eicher has made the practice of integrating the best of all possible musical worlds a career-long strategy. As a result ECM has long promulgated and exemplified the borderless possibilities of improvisational music. Nowhere are the fruits of such practice as evident as on Anouar Brahem’s eighth release for the label, 2017’s Blue Maqams. There is little precedent for a group of this kind, which pairs the Tunisian oudist with one of the finest rhythm sections in jazz: Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Django Bates. While some of Brahem’s instrumental contemporaries like Simon Shaheen and Rabih Abou-Khalil have successfully blended the sound of the oud with traditional or deconstructed jazz accompaniment, few have done so as seamlessly or with such depth. On the riff-y and infectious “Bahia” the sound of a vibrant folk form combines with a bedrock of theory and a questing sense of improvisational adventure; such a convergence hearkens back to the pancultural music of polymath Don Cherry, who, in many ways, provided ECM its aesthetic roadmap.

Jacob Young – Time Rebel: Norwegian guitarist Jacob Young was a student of Jim Hall, and it shows in his nimble and dynamic playing. The murderer’s row of accompanists on Young’s 2007 album Sideways—Mathias Eick on trumpet, Vidar Johansen on reeds, Mats Eilertsen on double-bass, and the ubiquitous Jon Christensen on drums—provides a skeleton key to some of the label’s greatest latter-day releases: if you see any of these names on an ECM record, buy it on sight. “Time Rebel” showcases Young’s beguiling melodic sensibility as well as the group’s rhythmic elasticity; Christensen, as always, provides a clinic in subtlety and restraint.

Florian Weber – From Cousteau’s Point Of View: “From Cousteau’s Point of View” appears on this year’s Lucent Waters, pianist Weber’s second release for the label following a telepathic collaboration with the fine trumpeter Markus Stockhausen. Here Weber is joined by bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Nasheet Waits, and sensational trumpeter Ralph Alessi, the latter of whom appears on three tracks, including this one. What sounds like a “Gloria’s Step” quote is somewhat misleading: Weber is far more athletic and flashy a player than Bill Evans, though he does possess much of the master’s preternatural ability to evoke mood and memory, as proven by this gentle and gorgeous tune.

Michel Benita / Ethics – I See Altitudes: On River Silver, the unlikely combination of electric guitar and electronics, bass, flugelhorn, drums, and kora probably shouldn’t work as well as it does; leave it to producer Eicher and bassist Michel Benita to make such a combination sound as natural and consonant as any piano trio. Flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel and bandleader-bassist Benita are in especially fine form, but it’s Mieko Miyazaki who shines brightest, alternately providing texture and supplying a rhythmic base for the group’s intimate, meditative improvisations. On album highlight “I See Altitudes” the line between patiently unfolding improvisation and compositional complexity is often blurred: out of a murk of what sounds like free play, instruments emerge to state a theme in harmony before trailing off in different directions like kites in a light breeze.

Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide – Weekend: Though the absence of a horn might for some ears scan as chamber jazz that is too much chamber and not enough jazz, the high points of Lucus, the 2018 album by percussionist Thomas Strønen’s group Time Is A Blind Guide, suggest that this is an arrangement that perfectly suits Strønen’s moody, tender compositions. For evidence of this look no further than the haunted and somber “Weekend,” which captures the deft interplay of strings and piano over vaporous puffs of bass and sharp, breezy percussion, rendered with an open-aired transparency that sounds capacious even by ECM standards. Be sure also to check out Strønen and saxophonist Iain Ballamy’s improvising collective, Food, which occasionally features guitarist Christian Fennesz.

Shinya Fukumori Trio – Hoshi Meguri No Uta: As a leader, drummer Shinya Fukumori is egoless; at various points during For 2 Akis, one could easily be convinced that either of his two bandmates were the ones running the show. This is not to say that Fukumori’s playing is ever second-rate or perfunctory, only that his restraint clearly reveals a level of maturity and dynamic sensitivity that belies his age. “Hoshi Meguri No Uta” suggests a cat and mouse game between the lithe saxophone of Matthieu Bornenave and the wistful piano of Walter Lang, each of whom appear to chase the lullaby-like melody up a spiral staircase, while Fukumori ramps up tension with judiciously deployed accents and rattling, sputtering rolls. If you buy only three ECM albums released this decade, make For 2 Akis one of them.

Andy Sheppard Quartet – Thirteen: Andy Sheppard is a changeling: downright skronky one minute (see his work with the group Trio Libero) and Zen-like and balladic the next, he’s also just as comfortable playing Coltrane licks as he is writing for large brass ensembles and chamber orchestras. And did we mention his trip-hop album? Such eclecticism makes Sheppard a difficult artist to pin down, but one gets the impression that the British saxophonist wouldn’t have it any other way. Romaria, his quartet’s second album, finds Sheppard firmly in nocturnal mode. On the frenetic “Thirteen,” a track composed in 13/8 time (hence the title), Sheppard’s keening soprano—here sounding wet and slippery in a way that reminds me of Jackie McLean— intones powerfully while bassist Michel Benita and drummer Sebastian Rochford puzzle out support and Eivind Aarset’s guitar provides undulating swells. It’s graceful, stately, and a bit icy; just three of Sheppard’s many moods.

Björn Meyer – Trails Crossing: Performed entirely solo on an 6 string electric bass guitar,Björn Meyer’s ECM debut Provenance is marked by meditative improvisations that exude powerful sophistication and depth. A former member of Nik Bärtsch’s fractal “Zen funk” ensemble Ronin, Meyer is well regarded as an innovator and, like cellist David Darling before him, views his instrument not as a tool of fixed and limited tonal possibilities but a means to any number of musical ends. On the pastoral and romantic “Trails Crossing,” ambient backward effects hover behind soft fingerpicked arpeggios that might have fit nicely on an early Windham Hill’s Guitar Sampler (think Peter Maunu). Meyer’s range of sounds, textures and moods is quite remarkable given his instrument’s superficial limitations, and Provenance is perhaps the rare solo bass album that will appeal not only to non-bassists, but to non-musicians as well.

Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane & Matt Garrison – Two Jimmys: Like the label on which is was released, In Movement is a shining example of a refined aesthetic. For the virtuosic DeJohnette—one of the few ECM regulars whose life in music, lasting over sixty years, exceeds that of the label itself—superlatives are inadequate and unnecessary. Coltrane, who plays tenor sax on two tracks on In Movement and soprano on the rest, is an astonishing player capable of depths of creative expression that easily transcend his birthright; he is very much in his element here. Garrison serves as a kind of modernizing agent whose electric bass, synth, and effects provide exhilarating swatches of color and texture. The eerie “Two Jimmys” is a shared tribute to both Garrison’s father and Jimi Hendrix. While DeJohnette’s skittering hi-hat and snare accents foreground the intricate groove, and Coltrane’s probing sax explores every possible melodic nook and cranny, Garrison sculpts ominous waves of ambient earwash. The result is modern music of uncommon power and beauty.

Ferenc Snetberger – Titok: Like his contemporary Dominic Miller, another ECM guitarist with a penchant for melodic and rhythmic abstraction, Snetberger makes a case for the guitar as a lead jazz instrument while managing to avoid easy comparisons with jazz guitarists of the past. Though performing on the conspicuously classical-sounding nylon string guitar, the Hungarian-born Snetberger is a risk-taker and modernist all the way, as likely to reference the Roma music of his home country as Brazilian pop. This, the title track to his 2017 album Titok, finds Snetberger and his transatlantic trio—which includes Swedish bassist Anders Jormin and American drummer Joey Baron, who here occasionally plays his kit with his hands—in fine form, with Jormin in particular lending a complementary elegance to Snetberger’s expansive, rhapsodic compositions.

Further Exploration: Aquarium Drunkard Guide to ECM: Vol 1 / Vol 2

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.

The Cosmic Range :: The Gratitude Principle

The Cosmic Range’s second LP finds the Toronto-based collective exploring all sorts of zones: dense Bitches Brew-worthy jams, soothing astral travels, freeform freakouts, Afrobeat groovers. Miles Davis called this stuff “New Directions in Jazz” back in the day. And while the approach is not so new anymore, it’s still fresh. Led by multi-instrumentalist Matthew “Doc” Dunn, the band is familiar to some as the backing group on US Girl’s 2018 release In A Poem Unlimited. But as adventurous as the sonics were on that stellar LP, The Gratitude Principle is even more untethered, with instrumental textures that call to mind not only fusion and spiritual jazz classics, but also the recent work of Bitchin Bajas and Natural Information Society. The opener, “Palms to Heaven” throws you right into maelstrom with fierce sax, overdriven keys and an unstoppably sinuous rhythm. The title track, meanwhile, builds to a maximalist, almost Kamasi-esque climax, Isla Craig’s wordless vocals leading the group into the heavens. Cosmic, to say the least. words / t wilcox

Modern Nature :: Supernature

Following the sudden disbandment of Ultimate Painting, Jack Cooper returns with a new, three-song EP under the name Modern Nature. Joined by keyboardist Will Young, drummer Aaron Neveu (Woods), cellist Ruper Gillett, and saxophonist Jeff Tobias (Sunwatchers), Cooper tell us: “The band is so new, it’s hard to say who’s in and who isn’t. Every song we record or musician we gain, another door seems to open on a route that’s worth pursuing.”

Open routes, indeed. On the eleven-minute “Supernature,” the first taste from the forthcoming Nature EP, Cooper widens the lens of the paisley psychedelia that U.P. were in the middle of, and expands the sonic scope tremendously, fusing English folk influences with chamber clothed experimental rock and spiritual jazz ragas. Get lost in it below, and dive into this playlist that Young and Cooper culled from fellow wide-eyed influences.

The Nature EP is out March 22 via Bella Union. Until then… words/c depasquale

Unearthed, Vol. 4 :: Jerry Garcia & Friends at the Matrix, 1966-71

For the latest edition of Unearthed (AD’s ongoing series of rarity-themed mixtapes), take a trip down to 3138 Fillmore Avenue in San Francisco. There, you’ll find the Matrix, a tiny club that existed from 1965-1972. As we know from excellent live recordings of the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Velvet Underground, John Fahey, Sandy Bull and others, if acts were onstage, the tapes were usually rolling. Jerry Garcia played there innumerable times (go here for more detail), but not many of his Matrix appearances have been released officially. Lucky for us, there is a wealth of material out in the wild. This Unearthed comp pulls together some highlights from five years worth of Jerry at the Matrix. It’s clear from listening that this was a spot where the musically omnivorous guitarist felt very comfortable, where he could stretch out, where he could experiment, where he could jam with a diverse cast of characters (the Dead, Merl Saunders, David Crosby, New Riders of the Purple Sage, etc). The array of sounds Garcia made at the Matrix is dizzying, from garage rock to jazz fusion to bluegrass to cosmic funk … and beyond. Enjoy.

Unearthed Vol. 4 : Jerry Garcia & Friends At The Matrix (zipped)

1. Viola Lee Blues (11/29/66) – The Grateful Dead / 2. Dark Star Jam (10/30/68) – Mickey and the Hartbeats / 3. Death Letter Blues (10/30/68) – Mickey and the Hartbeats / 4. Jam (12/24/68) – Jerry Garcia, Harvey Mandel and Elvin Bishop / 5. Soldier’s Joy (2/19/69) – High Country / 6. Triad (12/15/70) – David & The Dorks / 7. Free Flight (1970) – Jerry Garcia & Howard Wales / 8. All I Ever Wanted (7/30/70) – New Riders of the Purple Sage / 9. Rosalie McFall (7/30/70) – The Grateful Dead / 10-11. Save Mother Earth Jam-Funk Space Jam (1971) – Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders words / t wilcox

Previously: Vol. 1: Sausalito Haze / Vol. 2: 1978 Blend / Vol. 3: Ultrasonic

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.

Jay Bolotin :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“Our lives, they read like novels that we bought for dimes and hid/Hoping they wouldn’t find them.” —Jay Bolotin, “Dime Novels”

Jay Bolotin’s songs live in the shadows. It’s not just that the songwriter and visual artist’s compositions are obscure, though they are. But even when they’ve been hits, like Dan Fogelberg’s 1985 version of Bolotin’s “Go Down Easy,” they retain a sense of grand mystery. Rooted in country and folk traditions, but possessing an almost gothic air, Bolotin’s rarest compositions are featured on No One Seems to Notice That It’s Raining, a collection of demos and sketches recorded between 1970-1975. Listening to the quiet lyricism, it’s easy to hear why people like Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and other Music City luminaries lauded the Kentucky native’s work.

Bolotin’s talents are multi-fold. In the decades since he recorded these songs, along with a 1970 self-titled LP, he’s dedicated himself to woodcuts and filmmaking. Like his songs, his art feels spookily inhabited, soulful and lively but tinged with a skewed sadness. He’s currently at work on The Book of Only Enoch, a film featuring not only his art, but also new Bolotin music composed in partnership with guitarist Bill Frisell, along with the voices of Will Oldham, Michael York, and others.

Speaking over the phone from his home in Cincinnati, Bolotin opened up about his work, upbringing, and about the circuitous path that’s brought him to the present moment.

Aquarium Drunkard: A lot of people first heard your songs via covers by Dan Fogelberg and David Allan Coe. How did you feel hearing them sing your songs?

Jay Bolotin: You know, I tend to favor David’s versions, ‘cause they were kind of straightforward. And then Dan, who I adored personally…I hadn’t seen him for perhaps ten years when he released that single. I was at an amusement park with my children, they were maybe three and four and wanted to ride on the teacup ride, which made me terribly nauseous. It was kind of a run-down amusement park, and I was sitting on a wooden crate in the middle of some concrete with the sun pouring down…[I heard a song over the speakers and] something went up my spine. It was Dan singing what he called “Go Down Easy,” “It’s Hard to Go Down Easy.” I told the children I wrote that. They were totally unimpressed.

AD: [Laughs] That’s the way kids are sometimes. 

Jay Bolotin: Yeah, when I got back home, I called Owsley Manier, who had started the [club] Exit/In in Nashville, and remains a friend to this day. I said, “I think somebody recorded a song of mine,” and he checked it out. Sure enough, Dan had released it on the album High Country Snows. Owsley made some calls and a couple days later some guy called me and said, “Are you Jay Bolotin?” I said “Yeah.” He said, “Well we’ve been looking for you for months.” I said, “Huh, what do you want?” He said, “Well we’ve got some money for you.” I thought it’d be like fourteen dollars as it normally is or something like that, but it was if you added several zeros to that. It was number six on one of the Billboard charts. I had no idea.

AD: You’d been living your life and hadn’t been aware? 

Jay Bolotin: No, I had not. But I hadn’t seen Dan for maybe a decade at least at that point. This was in the mid-’80s, but that demo on the record was from 1972. I remembered Dan was there in the studio ‘cause he used to sing some harmonies and play second guitars for me sometimes when I did the demos. I guess he must’ve kept the tape. I’m forever grateful to Dan. It definitely helped my children and myself and changed a lot of things. As you must know, we lost Dan several years ago to cancer, but we were friends when we were kids in Nashville in our early ’20s.

AD: People like Mickey Newberry, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Porter Wagoner all praised your songs. Does seeing their words now inspire feelings of validation? 

Jay Bolotin: Those people were all quite gentlemen to me, and very kind. When [Delmore Recording Society head] Mark Linn was putting this together, he wanted me to write a remembrance of those times. I said, “Well, no.” He said, “What do you mean no?” I said, “Well, no one really knows who I am, and I don’t want to characterize my relationship with those people from 40-45 years down the road.” I mean, Merle was dead, Porter was dead. Because no one knows who I am, I can say anything I want. Linn said, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t do that.” I said “Well, I know I wouldn’t do that, but no one else does. Look, I have drafts of letters in these journal-looking type books. You want me to check and see if I wrote about some of that at the time?” He said, “Sure.” I did and read him some of it, and he said, “Well, we’re publishing that.” So that’s the insert. We made a decision to not use any words that were not from that time.

AD: You worked in Nashville toward being a professional songwriter. Did you enjoy your time there? 

Jay Bolotin: Well, I would say that might be an overstatement. [Laughs] I remember playing some songs for a real sweet guy at BMI, and I remember finishing two or three. He kind of looked at me thoughtfully and said, “You really do write songs for some reason other than to make money, don’t you?”[Laughs]

AD: A compliment, but maybe a backhanded one. 

Jay Bolotin: Exactly, that was the kind of tenor of the time, and I didn’t quite get it, you know. Certainly I had songwriter friends who were very talented people, and I very much admired the craft of songwriting. But I’ll admit, I lived there for two years and then moved back to Kentucky and kept going down. It seemed to me it might be a better idea to just try to live a life and try to come from that stance rather than being a songwriter in Nashville.

AD: Your songs are dark, with an undercurrent of almost gothic melancholy. Do you think that’s what the guy at BMI was getting at when he said you wrote songs for some reason other than to make money?

Jay Bolotin: Yeah, I think he was suggesting that there’s a gap between the business of songwriting and my songs. I had no argument with that. I just didn’t quite get it, you know? I thought you were supposed to try and make something beautiful. That’s what I was trying to do.

AD: Your song “Driver, Driver” sort of employs theological imagery. The driver of the bus is like a stand-in for God. He shows up in “Traveler” too, and “The Story of Lester and the Gold Coin” brings up faith as well. Were you raised in a religious tradition?

Jay Bolotin: My family is Jewish. I grew up on a farm in Kentucky. Apparently, we were the only Jewish farming family in Kentucky for a long time. There was this dichotomy. My mother’s family were cattle dealers that came over to Kentucky and bought land there, but my father’s people were orthodox Jews who I would spend the weekend with. They spoke Yiddish. But during the week, I hung out with mostly black people and Appalachian people and fed cows and helped take care of 2,000 pigs. It was a bit of a wide gap between those two thoughts. The weekends with my grandmother, who was originally from Lithuania, you’d wake up in the morning and they would be lauding to the sunrise and the trees and it was totally mysterious to me. I didn’t take in that particularly, except for that I found it mysterious and wonderful. On the other hand, I was busy feeding the pigs. 

AD: Did those two existences influence your songwriting? 

Jay Bolotin: Looking back upon it, both worlds were full of mystery to me. I had no trouble relating the two. I think that’s something that’s stayed with me. I do read myths and I don’t find it lacking in the everyday— you can just walk down the street and see myth is all around us everyday. I’m working on a short film with that Mexican writer, Ilan Stavans, and the opening line is, “The limit of our language is the limit of our world, and vice versa.” I find that to be a kind of invocation of how I feel about that, which is why I agreed to make the movie with him. I had no trouble with what looks like a kind of gap between reality and myth, I find them intertwined like a knot. 

AD: You made a film called The Jackleg Testament, which is a retelling of the creation story from Genesis.

Jay Bolotin: Yes, I kind of replaced Adam with a Jack-in-the-Box…He runs off with Eve and it doesn’t go well. The end of it is they have to go back to Eden and start all over again with the story that we all know. So this was originally called a Prehistory to That Which Is Mistakenly Called the Fall of Man.

AD: The film employs animated wood cuts. What do you like about working with wood? 

Jay Bolotin: I like the physicality of making woodcuts. It seems like if it’s cut in wood, it ought to have the right to exist somehow.

AD: Do you have more songs and animated projects in the works? 

Jay Bolotin: I’m trying to finish up this film with Ilan Stavans, and there’s another piece in progress, a longer film. I’ll write the score for half of it, and a hero of mine named Bill Frisell would write the other half. There’s some remarkable voices involved. One is Will Oldham, he goes by Bonnie “Prince” Billy in the music world. He’s playing the voice of a preacher who kind of understands the world by misunderstanding the world, but is quite sincere about it. My favorite American character actor Brad Dourif is one of the main voices. All these things tend to take me a decade or so, and I’m kind of running out of decades—I’m trying to pick up the pace a little bit.

AD: You create words in your songs, but also in these films and operas. Was that idea there for you originally, that you were in the business of creating worlds? 

Jay Bolotin: I think the honest answer is that at the time, I was making drawings and sculptures, even in Nashville, while writing songs. So no, I didn’t think of them particularly as the same thing. As the years went on, I started thinking, there’s really no difference between those. They are arrows in a quiver. They’re tools. A song is a brush. words/j woodbury

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Crème De Menthe // A Sound Collage

If you’ve been around a minute, you’ll remember the original iteration of the AD Transmissions podcast, a format we phased into our present (more “traditional”) model in 2016. But this? It’s a return to the sound collage framework. And the only way to hear it is to support AD on Patreon. Not only will it grant you access to these tunes, but your support will help us continue bringing you AD’s vibe via the weird world web. 

Intro (Gentleman Lisse Art Génie)
Jimmy Jukebox – Motor Boat (AD Rive Gauche edit)
Loak Klang (excerpt)
Shintaro Sakamoto – From The Dead (7″)
Julien Gasc – Luke Howard
[Have You Been Abducted?]
Ronald Langestraat – I’m Ready For Dancing
Patrick Cowley – One Hot Afternoon (edit)
Klauss Weiss – Survivor
Todd Rundgren – The Spark of Life (edit)
Deerhunter – Nocturne

Click here to pledge to support AD and hear the new mix.