"Why music?" It comes off like a Philosophy 101 essay question at first, but the more I twist my head around it, the more it causes a volcanic hurl of thought: Why do I love music? Why do I write about it? Why do I care what other people write about it? Do I love a song for the story or for itself? Does that matter? What if I go deaf? Am I going to miss my deadline?
But before we hurl into that open-ended question, meet the person who asks it: Jon Mueller. He's a thoughtful composer, percussionist and a friend of the members of Locrian and Mamiffer, two groups who recently released the collaborative album, Bless Them That Curse You. After the album came out, he interviewed the bands over email. In Mueller's philosophical musings on his website and on Twitter (think of him as the contemplative yang to @AndrewWK's outrageous yin), there is a similar seeking of sound and mind that makes Mueller a sympathetic interviewer. When Locrian's André Foisy sent me the finished Q&A via email one day, looking for place to host it, I was not only glad I didn't have to transcribe it, but was challenged myself by Mueller's questions to the musicians.
Murky, malicious, yet often angelic, the members of Chicago-based Locrian make music without genre, masterfully operating in metallic, droning and unexplored realms. And while Locrian has a number of albums under its own name, André Foisy, Terence Hannum and Steven Hess are drawn to collaboration, with Horseback on the excellent New Dominions and now with Mammifer on Bless Them That Curse You. Among several members, Mamiffer includes Aaron Turner, formerly of the tectonic-shifting metal band Isis and currently of several bands (Old Man Gloom, House of Low Culture, Lotus Eaters, to name a few), and Faith Coloccia from Pyramids, musical and life partners that find zen in distortion.
The roots of both bands may be in progressive- and black-metal, but the only metal heard throughout are clanging percussion, the occasional distortion and Aaron Turner's chest-filling growl. On the album's stunning three-part closer, "Metis/Amaranthine/The Emperor," Faith Coloccia's stark piano dirges are underscored by strummed acoustic guitar, sweeping Mellotron and the mounting electro-gurgles and feedback that eventually take over the side-long track. It's heavy music that seeks the affirmation of life through controlled chaos. Mueller asked the two groups about how they knitted their sounds together, and how they recorded the album while living in different cities.
Jon Mueller: Bless Them That Curse You combines more elements, from images to words to musical styles, than previous releases have. Each of those elements are interesting in their own right, but can you describe your aim in combining these into one project?
André Foisy (Locrian): We were fans of Mamiffer and we thought that recording together would be fun. I knew that both Aaron and Faith were dynamic musicians, so I wasn't worried about our styles not working out.
Terence Hannum (Locrian): It wound up being a very natural process once we all got together, I think. The sounds and content came together.
Faith Coloccia (Mamiffer): Everything came together, in a kind of synchronicity kind of way. We found connections between seemingly disparate sounds and images, and unified them into harmonious relationships. With the artwork, it was great to collapse personal narrative, and meaning into something made for the specific purpose of packaging the recording, and keeping in mind the aesthetics and feelings that both bands have created.
JM: The title of the record implies forgiveness. What inspired this?
TH: Well, I looked at the title multiple ways. Obviously, it has these connotations towards a Christian idea of forgiveness, but one of its captivating contradictions is that you'd be cursed. I think perhaps a part of it was our expectation, or at least my expectation that it might not fly with some listeners and the title could preempt any hate. Maybe not.
FC: For me, the thinking behind this name was to turn a negative into a positive, and illustrate finding strength through adversity. Sometimes there is a negative internal voice that gets projected onto potential listeners and observers and that voice can be negated by thanking the darkest parts of yourself and others. Definitely subverting the Christian meaning and not representing a loss by being cursed, but a gain.
JM: Why music? What about this particular format is interesting to you?
AF: I was always drawn to music, rather than other mediums because it gave me the opportunity to communicate feelings that were otherwise very difficult for me to express.
TH: I probably ask myself this everyday. I am also a visual artist, and all of my visual art is about the music experience. So I am constantly balancing between, "Should this be visual, sculptural or audio?" Every now and then it is out of balance, but lately I feel more balanced. Music is, to me, a very important human expression. Through it we order our world.
FC: For now with music and with Mamiffer, I am interested in exploring this medium for its social possibilities, and for the ways that this medium communicates. In music, there is a direct line to emotions, and an existing template or doorway to manipulate. Right now I also have a drive to communicate this way, it feels ancient, and pre-verbal, and also solid with roots. There is the chance of multiplicity of experience and interpretations. It is also a good means of exploring new places and meeting new people and learning from these experiences (for example, from touring).
The interaction of visual score, composition, collaboration, image with sound, word deconstruction, emotional archeology and feeling are all very new to me, and I enjoy learning about these new things through the medium of music.
Alex Barnett (Mamiffer): I don't remember why I started, but I'm addicted now. There's the drive to throw something into this trash vortex of everyone's ideas, but it also just feels really good to play some weirdo music.
Steven Hess (Locrian): Tough one... I believe it's a form of emotional communication for me, as with most other humans/musicians dating back 500,000 years (or so) ago. From "hit rock on log = danger" to "ctrl T/space/arrow/space in Ableton Live = relax and enjoy my deconstructed droned out rhythms." In my case it's a way of speaking, opening up to others and myself. It's also a form of meditation for me — focusing in on something and working with it, either building and expanding on it, or stripping it down to its most basic component, the simplest thing that holds it together. Then again, you can just "not think" and get lost in the moment while your playing.
One of my earliest musical memories is me playing my father's electric guitar. I think I was about five or six years old. I would sit and try to "play" along to certain records he was listening to, probably either The Ventures or Waylon Jennings, but when the records stopped, I would just sit by myself for hours playing that thing, totally lost in my own little world. I know it was complete racket to everyone who happen to hear me, but to me... I was really playing something special. I think subconsciously I got interested in music right around that time in my life, but it didn't really kick in until a few years later. Why music? There are many reasons really, and it's hard for me to narrow it down to just a few words. If there was a way for you to go back in time and ask the six year-old Steven, I'm sure he'd give you a much better answer.
JM: With Mamiffer as collaborators on this release, the dynamic of the music reaches further extremes. How intentional are those extremes and what about this release made you want to explore them?
AF: I love that performing with Mamiffer gave us new dynamics to work with. Before we recorded, I was trying to think about what moments in Locrian's playing are most effective and I thought the same thing about Mamiffer. My favorite song is the last one on the album and I love how simple and haunting it is. Maybe our compositions would have been more complicated if we would have had more time to think about it.
Aaron Turner (Mamiffer): Both Mamiffer and Locrian have explored the possibilities of extreme dynamic shifts within their own music, so when working together it seemed completely natural to continue with those practices. How these movements took shape was almost entirely the result of spontaneous and intuitive interaction with each other and the music itself — one sound or passage would suggest a complementary response or addition. There was no division between which group or individual should be relegated to a certain type of sound or mood or instrument, and as a result I think our musical personalities and ideas bled into each other and mutated each track in really unexpected ways. It seems that in working together we were encouraged to look beyond the boundaries of the music we make on our own, and the result was moving even further into complementary, but starkly contrasting directions. I would also add that Randall [Dunn]'s mixing job and highly sensitive ears helped us further carve out the body of each track, and emphasize all the shifts and contrasts already sketched out within them.
TH: I agree, we had these new dynamics, and a lot of things to try with the different instruments and studio things. So we could push our more quiet elements and pull back on the noise for a more effective timing. Does that make sense? It really was about restraint in a lot of places.
JM: Was it challenging to work on the music with a group that lived in a different city? How much of the composition occurred at the time of recording, when you were together?
AF: We finished most of the recording in Chicago together. It would have been nice if we would have been able to mix and master the music together, but that wasn't possible.
TH: All composing pretty much happened while we were together. Or at least it was far enough along to know what had to be done. Certainly it had its difficulties, but try getting five, six, seven people to agree when they're all back in their lives and not in the studio solely focused on the same thing. But that was like the challenge, at some point you compromise and know what is best for the album.
FC: We thought it would be challenging working with people we had never met before, but it was actually very easy, and we got along very well. The hardest part was mixing without Locrian, and having to make creative decisions without them present and waiting around to transfer audio, and get responses.
Most of the composition occurred as improvisation in Electrical Audio. The basis for one piano composition for "Metis" was written before going into the studio, and only presented to the collaboration group on the day we met, and changed there.
AB: Maybe everyone else talked a little more before hand, but it seemed to me like all of the composition was during the recording. We'd be sitting in the control room, like, "I have an idea for that one," and then just go in there and record an attempt at a take. Some of the songs are straight improvisations off a sketch from moments before. As we got more ideas down, we'd take stock of where it was headed. There was a good energy around being in that studio with a bunch of cool stuff. There was also something really nice and cohesive about that group of people. It felt like everyone was open to seeing what we were going to make. [Recording engineer] Greg Norman fostered that environment. He was always ready to go with that onslaught of ideas, he brought his own ideas to the table, and he was a perfect fit for that group. I'd record with him anytime.
JM: Much of the music is instrumental, so the segments with vocals and lyrics stand out even stronger. Are lyrics generally written around music, or the opposite? What warrants the need for more direct communication as opposed to the more ambiguous imagery of sound?
TH: I tend to have some lyrics, or phrases written down, not necessarily attached to a song. Then when the song takes form I'll say something like, "I have an idea here." And then I'll edit the content to fit. Or sometimes André will say he hears vocals somewhere and I'll try and fit something in there. I do not typically just sit around and write lyrics. I tend to hang on to ideas for inspiration; books or poems by other authors. Then I start moving things around and adding my perspective.
FC: My lyrics were written before the studio. They were a study for me, on having a vulnerable voice, and conveying emotion through words, and not in the abstract ways I am used to communicating emotion through sound abstraction. I am comfortable and practiced with abstraction, and not so with words. In the process of writing the lyrics and piano part for "Metis" I tried to remain non-goal oriented, and to create without known reasons, hoping to discover new potentials.
JM: In retrospect, and for your personally, what is the most important thing about this project to you?
AF: I'm happy that we had this opportunity to work with some musicians that we highly respect and that we made something really powerful and beautiful. Travis, Aaron, and Faith are all really sweet amazing people and I'm glad that we're friends now. Oh yeah, and money, I'm hoping to make enough money from this album to retire comfortably.
TH: It definitely challenged me. I always feel as if I don't work well with others and this was such a rewarding experience. The ends justified the means. Oh, and I need a Mellotron.
FC: There were two important things that came out of this project for me: Working with and becoming friends with Locrian, and finding my voice. I found that I must put myself into text as into the world. Learning who to work with and how to work with them, and how to better communicate, was a really great lesson from this whole collaboration experience. And it was great to be in Chicago with so many great friends.
AB: We made this record that is like a weird cave journey. It goes a lot of powerful dark places, but doesn't quite sound like any of our other projects. What more could you want from a collab?
SH: The most important things about this project for me was the process of creating the music, the challenges that were involved, and meeting/making new friends. There are obstacles and challenges in every recording session, but with this particular one there were so many like-minded individuals involved that those obstacles were easily overcome, and ideas that worked just seemed to keep coming, without cluttering up the music. Recording this material for BTTCY was an amazing learning experience, and creating music should most definitely be a learning experience. I think the end results says everything — this is a very special record to all of us, and I think that can be heard and felt when listening to it, and I hope others who hear it get that sense as well.