Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pocahaunted: An Interview with Bethany Cosentino

Bethany Cosentino is one half of Los Angeles duo Pocahaunted (with Amanda Brown), known for their long, spooky, and almost meditative drone compositions. Their music is both calming and foreboding, often simultaneously, and can feel like being lullabyed into a nightmare-filled sleep. Amid war drums, lulling guitar, and howling voices, Pococaunted always seem to be beating, guiding, and gathering towards some sonic place, a place where we'll probably never arrive. But if we can't know where Pocahaunted are going, we can at least find out where they come from.

Alexander Frank: Can you tell me a little bit about your progression from more standard songwriting to the drone and noise of Pocahaunted? I know that before Pocahaunted, not so long ago, you wrote songs with lyrics and bridges and choruses and all that. So how and when did you make the transition something more discordant?

I was really kind of bored with traditional songwriting, and when Amanda approached me and asked me to start a band with her, we had no real concept in mind of what the music would sound like. Coming from a strong musical background, I figured I would go in there and attempt to construct something, but when the two of us came together, the Pocahaunted sound just happened. And we never questioned it or tried to throw a label on it, we just played the music that came to us, and came out of us. It was only later that people started to call us a "drone" band.

AF: Does genre mean anything to Pocahaunted? What would you label yourselves if you had to?

Well, like I said before, I think we play the music we play because it's just what kind of comes out. Amanda and I have completely different tastes in music, and neither one of us really even listens to “drone” bands, so I wouldn't necessarily say it's important to us to be categorized as a drone band. We make the music we make because it is somehow inspired by our varying tastes, and it just so happens that the mash-up of all these cross genres creates this droney, blissed-out music.

AF: Can you talk a little bit about those influences? The drone and noise influences are obvious, but I also hear the 20th century diva. Your voice is Buffy-Saint Marie, Elizabeth Fraser, and Mariah Carey rolled into one! Can you talk about some divas that inspire Pocahaunted? I hear Patsy Cline, too. Am I crazy?

Well obviously, I am all about the Diva. Amanda and I kind of joke around that we are both divas, but honestly, it's not a joke. We are loud, and demanding, and we require a lot of attention. But we are also really, really inspired by a lot of female musicians, and I think it's pretty clear in our music. I think there is a real feminine quality to the songs, and I think even without the layers of female vocals, the music itself portrays a very feminine vibe. I am really inspired by Elizabeth Fraser, which I think is pretty obvious. I also love, love, love Patsy Cline, so the comparison is amazing. I'm inspired by a lot of female soul singers from the 60s and 70s like Irma Thomas, Doris Duke, and, of course, Aretha Franklin. We're both also really into Nina Simone, and other women of jazz.

AF: Just knowing you as a friend, your personality seems so divergent from the sounds on your records. You're so talkative and verbal and present in person, but on record you sound sort of distant, far away, nonverbal, in a sense. Do you become someone different when you're recording and performing?

I don't think I act any different when recording or performing. Amanda has a hard time getting me to act “seriously” on stage. I think she takes it more seriously than I do from a performance standpoint. I mean, don't get me wrong, I am into it—but for me it's harder, because I'm the one playing the guitar, and carrying the song, so I get a little nervous and I try to concentrate a lot. We recently started playing with a more basic band, so it's easier for me now to ease up and put the guitar down at some point. And when I do that, I feel like I have more room to get into the performance.

AF: What's the process of writing and creating a Pocahaunted song or album? How much do you have planned out and how much just happens during the recording process?

Basically what happens is Amanda and I will brainstorm ideas, meaning, we will say “we want this album to sound like...”, and then we throw out some insane jargon like "Talking Heads meets Cocteau Twins thrown into a blender after smoking a lot of weed”. We basically don't write songs. I come up with a pretty simple guitar riff, and then we add on top of that. Most of our albums have concepts behind them though, and we go into them hoping that we will come across a certain way for a particular album. We have really tried to grow and change with each release, and I think our personal influences show through a lot more in the later albums than in any of the earlier stuff we released.

AF: One last question. What's the best time of day to listen to a Pocahaunted album? Morning? Afternoon? Night, after a long day of work? Right before you go to bed?

At night, I guess...Yeah, at night. When it's most spooky out. And kinda foggy. And close to some mountains, or maybe the ocean. Yeah: listen to us at night in nature.

Interview by Alex Geoffrey Frank

Photo: Clare Kelly

Cool Tunes:

Pocahaunted, Island Diamonds, Not Not Fun, 2008
Pocahaunted, Chains, Teardrops, 2008
Pocahaunted/Robedoor, Hunted Gathering, Digitalis Industries, 2007
Pocahaunted, Mirror Mics, Weird Forest, 2008.

Continuing Education:
Pocahaunted on Not Not Fun website

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Vorg Vessel, The Queen of Fish Mountain (5”) + Illuminated by Stripes (3”), Cut Hands

The prolific Adam Kriney is perhaps best known as a drummer, hammering it out freestyle for a handful of Brooklyn-based psychedelic and improv outfits on the Colour Sounds Recordings label (Dragonfrynd, Owl Xounds, La Otracina), which he himself runs.

With Vorg Vessel (Cut Hands), his first solo outing, this Boston expat sets down his sticks and sinks his claws into a classic Lowrey organ and a keyboard, presumably cheap and battery-powered. A disclaimer in the liner booklet informs us that “The Queen of Fish Mountain” (5”) and “Illuminated by Stripes” (3”) are 100% synthesizer and sequencer free. Whether Kriney is trying to paint himself as a purist or making some kind of sweeping statement about the current state of electronic music is irrelevant: rarely has the sound of two droning instruments grinding against one another been so varied and beautiful.

“The Queen of Fish Mountain” and “Illuminated by Stripes” share an old, almost archival feel, like the sleepy krautrock soundtrack to a German expressionist film played back over a warped VHS tape. Like Kriney’s other projects, Vorg Vessel pulls off fine balancing act the ad-lib and the scripted: Kriney is constantly churning out minimal melodic ideas, but they keep getting bogged down in a swamp of delay and oversaturation. Cyclical circus melodies bend into jarring two-note intervals before opening out into the air, reminding us of the power of simple combinations of notes to return us to the peace of the womb or make our hair bristle.

More than anything else, however, the two Vorg Vessel discs allow us to lose ourselves for a time in the pure, throbbing frequencies of the Lowrey. Organ sounds we’ve all heard a thousand times before magically reconnect with the feelings we attached to them as children: the Gothic menace of a bass tone, the astral visitation of a high tremolo. This offering is elegantly packaged in a slimline DVD case, with art by Peter Friel and two lovingly spray-painted flying saucers—perhaps the perfect metaphor for the music inside.

Limited edition of 50. Organ help by Tracy Hatch.

Words: Emilie Friedlander

Originally published on Foxy Digitalis in December, 2008.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Interview with Yuri Landman: Guitars and Men

Yuri Landman, a noise guitarist and comic artist from Holland, put down his guitar and his pencils ten years ago to devote his life to building electric string instruments, “a universal art” combining “music, science, and the visual arts.” Landman draws on a vast theoretical foundation in acoustics, science (Helmholtz, Chladni, Jenny), and esotericism (Partch) to craft custom noisemakers for an international coterie of experimental music all-stars. In this extended interview, Landman speaks about his working process, his creations, and his collaborations with customers like Lee Ranaldo, sharing a few interesting tidbits on harmonics, consonance, and temperament along the way.

Sophie Pécaud: When did you start making instruments?

I started building in 2000, right after I left the band Zoppo. For years, I had been playing prepared guitars in the studio and couldn't recreate those sounds properly on stage, with the screwdrivers slipping out and different stage amps all the time. Also, audio feedback is a big problem on small stages when you prepare your guitar and overdrive the sound. With handmade instruments, this problem is easier to solve.

The black overtone zither, my first construction, was a very rudimentary instrument. It was the leg of a two-legged table. I painted it black, screwed some iron parts on it as best as I could, and added an old curtain rail system under the string positions that allowed me to “break” the strings with the curtain hooks. Working with metal is quite different from working with wood, so the instrument didn’t work very well. It was impossible to tune. But the sound of it was already very good and workable, just too atonal.

Sophie Pécaud: What are some of your favorite guitars, and whom did you make them for?

I made the Moodswinger first. That one was for Aaron [Hemphill] of Liars. The Moonlander was made for Lee Ranaldo. Then I made a Bachelor QS for Jad Fair, a very odd instrument and one of my favorites. And the fourth one was the stereo-guitar, the Springtime, which is my main commercial success, because it is pretty easy to play for a guitar player and doesn't require much knowledge about physics.

Sophie Pécaud: So you have worked with Lee Ranaldo!

After working with Liars, I approached Sonic Youth's managers to propose something similar to them. The message was forwarded, and one day later I received an email from Lee Ranaldo. Ranaldo mentioned he wanted an electric variant of a harp guitar, a guitar with an additional resonating string field. One month later, I met him at a festival in Holland and showed him the sketches and he agreed and was very enthusiastic about my work. After 6 months, the instrument was ready, and I delivered it to him in Holland in the summer of 2007. The Moonlander is a weird instrument, but totally spectacular in its own unique way. It sounds like you're standing in a cathedral: a very massive, broad sound.

Sophie Pécaud: How do you come up with ideas for new instruments?

I talk with musicians who want to have something done, and then I mention some solution, or show them rougher earlier models, and we continue with an improved or totally new design. Enon's Twister, for instance, is a 2.0 upgrade version of the Springtime. And I read about physics, or listen to sounds everywhere, and start considering how to incorporate them into a tonal device.

I’ve also become interested in Chladni patterns [a 19th century German physicist who studied the properties of sound waves, mainly by dropping sand on metal plates, EN], and the cymatic works of Hans Jenny [a 20th century Swiss physicist known as the father of cymatics, the study of wave phenomena, including sound wave, EN], trying to adapt these physical phenomena to my musical objects. White noise doesn't actually exist. Sound waves always shape themselves into a certain pattern. Within the field of white noise [frequency denoting a sum of all possible frequencies, EN], “flowers” appear. This explains why hard rock fans like the “atmosphere” in loud guitar music. When you are in a group of people and everybody is talking, you are capable of focusing in on a single person’s voice. A hard rock fan does the same. He excludes the “noise” and listens to the harmonic “flowers” within the noise. Those are the shapes I tried to recreate in the Moodswinger scale, and they also appear in the scale of the Guquin, an ancient Chinese instrument.

Sophie Pécaud: You seem to be really interested in the link between physics and music. When did you begin to explore this relationship, and how do you integrate your findings into your work?

It was after finishing the Moodswinger, a more mathematical and polished version of my first guitar, that I started becoming interested in physics, and attempting to transcribe its principals into musical terms. […] It’s a really strange story, me being a noise punk rocker and all, accidentally discovering a very clear coherence between physics and loud noise rock that nobody had detected before. Cage's opinion was that every sound or tone is beautiful, depending on how you focus on it. I disagree with that. The 3rd Bridge Theory [an alternative playing technique that consists in placing an object, often a screwdriver, between the neck and strings of the guitar, dividing the chords into two sections and thereby producing a new harmonic field, EN] explains why I disagree. The theory is based on the works of the ancient Chinese and Harry Partch [the first American composer and theorist to have worked systematically with microtonal intervals, smaller than a half note, NDLR], but no one in the music literature had ever explained it the way I did.

The instruments are not just arty-farty oddness, or only boring microtonal physics. I think about the color of sound and how it could be enhanced by building a logical tonal device. Using physics is required to get this result.

Sophie Pécaud: So do you reject the idea that consonance, harmony, or the “beauty” in musical intervals is the product of cultural conditioning, and that any sound might considered beautiful if it is emancipated from our musical norms?

Cage is a great hero for many avant-garde music lovers. I like him too, but I dislike the big appreciation and following, since I am becoming more and more convinced that his opinion is not so solid at all. What is beautiful is not a human perception. Nature decides what's consonant and we, being part of nature, prefer nature, so we prefer the rules nature dictates to us with a small individual tendency called taste. Lets take it the tone E, and look at its series of harmonics, from strongest to weakest: E-E-B-E-G#-B-D-E-F#-G#. Take a close look at the beginning of the series, and you recognize the major chord. So humans didn't invent the major chord, nature did.

Many Western musicians agree with Cage’s belief that consonance is a normative value. But there is a difference between subjective fausse [the quality of being out of tune, EN] and objective fausse. Cultural development leads to certain aesthetic convictions of what's beautiful and what's not. In 1949, the very famous Dutch physicist Adiaan Fokker conducted tests with the Meantone temperament and the equal temperament. The audience agreed that the old tuning was more aesthetically pleasing. I went to a lecture in 2008 and the same test was done and the audience voted for the 12tet! My conviction is we are being indoctrinated by the 12tet, because we are born surrounded by recorded music. The people in Fokker’s audience were not born with that tuning around them twenty-four hours a day. So the 12tet is a normative tuning for Western people, but it is objectively fausse, and therefore not perfectly consonant. To avoid confusion, it's good to speak about normative consonant and objective consonant.

Sophie Pécaud: But the history of music demonstrates that the very idea of consonance, whether it stems from this “normative consonance”, or from what you call “objective consonance”, is the most cultural thing in the world ! The Ancient Greeks, for example, believed that only the octave, fourths, and fifths were « divine, » and therefore consonant. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the third or the major sixth were considered to be so as well!

I've read that too, yes, but really have strong doubts about this storytelling. In 2000 BC, the Chinese already used the major third, the major sixth, the minor third, and the 7/8 position.

What the Greeks did was calculation, not music. They wanted to create a transposable musical system derived from pretty smart calculation. Therefore they had to drop the major third 5/4 position. Which doesn't mean it’s not divine. Maybe that's what they called it, because they couldn't use it in their Pythagorean scale calculation. They chose the poorly sounding 81/64 instead. In other cultures, however, the 5/4 is always present and widely used. The Greeks were aware of its beauty, for sure, but it just wasn’t practical when they transposed.

Sophie Pécaud: What projects are you working on now?

I'm working on drum guitars for The Dodos and Liam Finn. I am very excited about those instruments. I'm also working on a harp guitar for The Veils and a guy from Barcelona. And some other rough new things for Lightning Bolt, These Are Powers, PRE, and maybe Melt-Banana.

Besides building, I do a lot of other projects. Gaspard Claus, a French musician, has been invited to curate a day of the Guitares au Palais Festival in Perpignan, which takes place from August 28th to the 30th. They are booking a group of famous artists who will perform on my instruments for a unique, one-time show. I will be present there with a friend from the Dutch band The Moi Non Plus to explain how the instruments function and then the musicians are going to adapt their music to my instruments. My 5-year-old son is also going to perform. I've asked the school board, and he can get a day off for doing a show in the Medieval Castle of Perpignan. He's very good at drumming loudly with sticks on stringed instruments.

Interview: Sophie Pécaud

Photo: Yuri Landman

Cool Tunes:
The Luyas
Blood Red Shoes

Continuing Education:
Yuri Landman’s Wikipedia page
Transcript from a conference at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, published in Perfect Sound Forever
Interview with Pitchfork

Click here for original French article, published in Fragil Magazine

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Call for Writers

After only a few months up and running, Visitation Rites is looking to expand its team of contributors in response to a rapidly growing readership. We are launching a new, bilingual website this spring, and are looking for French and English language music writers who like what we are doing and would like to help us build our site into something really special.

A little bit about Visitation Rites:

Visitation Rites
is a bilingual online magazine that aims to bridge the gap between the experimental, psychedelic, folk, drone, and out music communities of North America and Europe. It provides up-to-date coverage of music makers worldwide, and attempts, wherever it can, to ground its reflections in a wider social, political, and philosophical context. Visitation Rites publishes reviews, interviews, and portraits in English and French, and features passionate and articulate voices from both sides of the Atlantic.

To apply, email with a brief description of your background as a writer and music lover, a short writing sample, and an idea for your first contribution to Visitation Rites, be it a record review, a portrait, an interview, or mock Adornean critique of your favorite noise band. Applications will be considered in both English and French.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Stone Breath, "Lanterna Lucis Viriditatis" Re-issue, November 2008

In the liner notes for Stone Breath’s second lp, re-issued last month in an expanded double disk by Hand/Eye, clawhammer banjo player and weird folk visionary Timothy Renner confesses that the album “almost didn’t happen.” Those of you who wish that The Incredible String Band hadn’t stopped producing records like “The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion” or “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” in the late 1960s will be glad that it did.

As a piece of contemporary American music, “Lanterna Lucis Viriditatis,” or “the lantern of the greening light,” feels like a record that could only have come out of a campfire in Brattleboro, Vermont or Western Massachusetts, though rural Pennsylvania comes close enough. The anonymous folk ballad arrangements and the Clive Palmer cover on track 4 say it all: the four members of Stone Breath, like Palmer and Mike Heron before them, are “traditional” folkies at heart, with one foot in Appalacia and one foot in old England. But between yodel sessions for The Spectral Light & Moonshine Firefly Snakeoil Jamboree, their main project, the group’s search for roots has led them as far as India, Egypt and darkest Peru, splurging on a witchfinder dulcimer, a pan flute, or a sitar for every banjo and 12-string.

There is a good deal of mystical head-scratching here, but Renner, Prydwyn Piper, Sarada, and RA Campbell seem a lot more earth-bound than their Scottish antecedents, favoring repetitive incantations and minimal drone arrangements over flying 180 degree turns. Timothy’s voice lumbers drowsily over everything from last year’s harvest to Christian martyrdom, riding on a constant flow of repetitive banjo and guitar motifs and punctuated by a few candleflickers of harmonium and vocal harmony. With a second disk full of tracks from previous 7 inch and CDR releases, there is a whole lot to digest here, but it is hands down one of most gorgeous folk releases I’ve heard since the Feathers lp—even if it predates that album by a couple years. And perhaps the soundtrack to the salvia trip you never had the guts to take.

Words: Emilie Friedlander

Originally published on Foxy Digitalis, December 2008

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