Hi Mark, where are you right now and what have you been listening to lately?
I’m at home in Evanston IL-just north of Chicago. Drinking coffee after work and listening to the water running through the filter of our pet turtle’s tank and the music of Mette Henriette. If you’re not familiar with her she’s a Norwegian composer and saxophone player who put out a record on ECM a couple of years ago it’s so beautiful-one of those records I only let me listen to occasionally because I don’t want to become too familiar with it. worried the magic might lessen-but magic never really does.
Last few days I’ve been listening to lots of the music that made it onto the mix-Mike Cooper, African Head Charge, Ulla, my friend Robert Donne’s incredible track Touch my Camera Through the Fence, Takagi Masakatsu. The most recent music that I’ve really liked are the 3 cd comp by Fubutsushi on Cached Media and my friend Francis Harris’ beautiful new record Thresholds that I was lucky enough to contribute to.
Running a label myself, and given you had the honor of being the very first release on Kranky, with Labradford, I’m interested in the details of how that very first album and relationship came about?
It’s hard to believe but back then you could put out a 7″ single-maybe 300 copies-and be pretty confident all the key distributors, zines, record store buyers and radio stations would find out about it and boost it up if they liked it. Joel and Bruce worked at Cargo-an independent distributor based in Chicago. Our single came across Joel’s desk and he felt good enough about it to set in motion the plan he’d been forming to start a label. I remember my friend Andrew who put the single out told me a guy from Cargo was going to call me and I stayed close to the (landline) phone for the next couple days. Joel called, we talked and the rest has unfolded very naturally. A blend of luck and trying to manifest something in the world around the music.
“Romantic minimalism” is used in the text for your new album The Patience Fader, and it’s an apt term for the delicate, perhaps even more ‘focused’ approach on this one. Do you think there is a clear connection between the effects of the past year and the type of music it inspires? Was that the case here?
Yes-absolutely in my case. Both from within and without. Not consciously of course, but Patience Fader was made during the summer and fall of 2020, so Covid, Trumpism, BLM/George Floyd protests were all in full flight. At the same time, my father was dying in a hospice in Virginia that we couldn’t visit because of Covid. In some respects, emotions were very simple for me in this time. Right and wrong, life and death joy and sorrow seemed very plainly mapped out.
The album features some smaller ‘vignette’ type tracks, which I personally love. What was your intention behind these as part of the greater album flow? Is there a hidden narrative?
Not a narrative really, no. I would say there’s a theme of Roots throughout the record and trying to find different ways to approach what roots and being grounded can mean. So guitar and harmonica as the instruments used speak literally to the basic grounding of American music. The field recording of a summer afternoon and slamming screen door on Baitshop is evocative to me of childhood. There’s even a song called Grounded. We were all literally grounded by Covid and I was searching for a sense of Grounding amidst the unraveling.
It seems like you come from the ‘instrumental first’ school of ambient music (as I sometimes like to put it), integrating your instruments as source material, especially on your latest. What does the process for creating a PA album usually look like?
It tends to come out of the daily practice of playing. I like practicing and trying to be “better” as a guitar player. Sometimes it can even feel like if I get an idea I need to dig into, it interrupts just simple, repetitive practice that in some ways I enjoy more. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing when an idea needs to be followed through and I do feel like I have an obligation to not let it go. Although in the end, most don’t make it. Eventually, I tend to establish something that feels like the first song for an album and the last song, and that’s when I know that something new is really emerging.
The Lapsteel / Pedal steel was perhaps brought to ‘ambient fame’ by the KLF’s Chill Out, especially to those who run in more general ‘ambient’ music terms. And I definitely get a similar vibe to that album with The Patience Fader. …“the ghost of rust belts and dust bowls looming in a horizon of deepening dusk.” as the press text puts it. As a foreigner in the US, I’ve always wondered about this romanticism and never really experienced it outside of trips to the desert here in the west. How does this come to life for you personally? Is it something you seek out?
I’m a big fan of Chill Out-but I think Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois got there first on Apollo! Also, the Paris Texas soundtrack and Ry Cooder’s slide playing cemented some of those connections that I guess now verge on cliche. Funny enough I’m a bit of an outsider here as well-my Father was a US diplomat and I didn’t live in the US until I was a teenager. I’ve always looked for a way in I guess, and music-rock n roll, country, blues, jazz seemed like a kind of skeleton key. A key to a series of doors that open and close constantly and I seem to remain disoriented. I certainly returned to these roots (literal and figurative) in music for an explanation or comfort as Trump set fire to whatever remained of the Better Angels of what (for some reason) is referred to as the American Experiment. Mixed results.
You speak of the notion of “lighthouse music,” radiance cast from a stable vantage point, sending “a signal to help others through rocks and dangerous currents.” My perception and ‘unromanticizing’ of this after listening to the album, is that you have tried to create very clear, and comforting music, something that will cut through easier and not need too much thought for it to work. I love this overall sentiment – could you expand upon it in your own words?
It’s an effort to be uncluttered and go straight for the heart. The beauty in country music is the same effort or effect. It’s ok if it’s a formula to an extent that’s comforting! The songs on my record share a very similar structure and palette to one another-I really wanted to create a world that would be very quickly recognized-meaning the boundaries would be clear right away-and the work could be done within those boundaries. There’s certainly much to recommend pushing beyond known boundaries and limits-for me though it’s where known elements within a world blur, overlap, merge, surrender and change like water that’s what I’m interested in! New possibilities come from new combinations, and new layering of familiar material. Hybrid forms, mutations. I think what we’re looking for is here-it’s just up to us to make it visible.