Expanding the Expanse

Vicky Chow

“We lose ourselves in the groove, letting the bright sounds wash over our ears. But not all minimalism is idyllic.”

Listening to pianist Vicky Chow blaze through Tristan Perich’s Surface Image, one is tempted to cry “Minimalism!” After all, we’re dealing with a sonic landscape not all that distinct from the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley. With its overlapping patterns, static harmonies, and relentless repetition—not to mention its unbroken, hour-plus length—Surface Image might easily be seen as a 21st-century companion to the minimalist classics of the 1960s.

Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich
Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

Perich’s work investigates the sonic attributes of 1-bit music, whose low-fi quality trumps even the already low-fi, old-school video game sounds of chiptune (see: Anamanaguchi). In Surface Image, Chow’s unyielding piano is backed by forty hand-built speakers that intermittently blast bursts of 1-bit accompaniment. But even here, there are resonances with minimalism: the reedy timbre of the electronics weirdly resembles the looping saxophones of early Terry Riley or La Monte Young.

These days, every year seems like a landmark for minimalism. If it isn’t a celebration of a major milestone—in November, the 50th anniversary of Riley’s In C; next year, Riley’s and Young’s 80th birthdays—then it’s a Carnegie Hall premiere of a big, new Reich or Glass work. And with every concert or record, the music industry reminds us that Reich listens to Radiohead, Glass worked with Brian Eno, Young’s drones influenced the Velvet Underground, and Riley inspired The Who. The hyperbole surrounding minimalism is that it’s the rare experimental moment in American music that has close ties to the rock world.

That pop culture focus, however, often obscures the expanse of sounds that minimalism has encompassed. A number of recent releases available on Bandcamp—including Perich and Chow’s new album, out this week on New Amsterdam—opens up one’s ears to minimalisms that extend beyond the oft-cited quartet of Young, Riley, Glass, and Reich.

In case you’re not familiar with those pioneering composers, an excellent new recording of Reich’s New York Counterpoint by clarinetist James Falzone is a great way to dive into the sound of classic minimalism. Listen to how the musical lines fall gradually in and out of sync, producing waves of resonant harmony—a development on Reich’s phasing technique.

James Falzone
James Falzone by Robert Loerzel

It’s easy to bliss out to New York Counterpoint, and that’s the case with much minimalist music; we lose ourselves in the groove, letting the bright sounds wash over our ears. But not all minimalism is idyllic. In the 1960s, shaped by the minimalist visual aesthetic of Robert Morris and Donald Judd, Reich and Glass focused on process-oriented work—setting up chains of musical events and letting them unfold over several hours. But both composers eventually abandoned those forms of experimentation for more tightly crafted musical narratives.

Tim Munro
Tim Munro by Marc Perlish

Composer Tom Johnson, best known for his seminal Village Voice music criticism, has maintained a commitment to the experimental edge of early minimalism, forsaking sweet sounds in favor of harsh patterns. A new album on Parlour Tapes+ by flutist Tim Munro includes Johnson’s Counting Duets, in which voices shout numbers in tightly woven patterns. Munro’s plainspoken but aggressive counting reflects a more abrasive kind of process, minimalism as maddening rather than blissful. (One is reminded of the famous story of an audience member, during a Carnegie Hall performance of Reich’s severe Four Organs, yelling “All right, I’ll confess!”)

Several years ago, Johnson—based in Paris since the 1980s—visited Kansas City for a conference sponsored by the Society for Minimalist Music. In a keynote lecture, the composer was surprisingly dismissive of the direction that American minimalism had taken in recent decades (he shrugged off Adams’s Nixon in China, one of the masterworks of minimalist-inflected composition). Instead, Johnson offered up an alternative strain of minimalism: that of the Wandelweiser collective. This loose international grouping of composers takes after John Cage and Christian Wolff’s midcentury explorations of silence. For Wandelweiser, minimalism represents a minimal use of sound rather than a minimal use of materials (rare is the silent moment in the music of Reich and Glass). Pianist R. Andrew Lee, who attended Johnson’s Kansas City lecture, has since become an advocate for Wandelweiser on the label Irritable Hedgehog. (I should note that I write liner notes for Lee’s albums.) On his most recent recording of piano works by composer Jürg Frey, we hear stillness interrupted, repetition thwarted: minimalism as minor acts of sonic violence against a listener lulled by its expansiveness.

Andrew Lee
Andrew Lee

Lee has committed to eroding conventional definitions of minimalism by performing works by composers like Frey and his colleague Eva-Maria Houben. He also recently commissioned a new work from composer Randy Gibson, who heads the Avant Media series in New York and is one of the few disciples of the famously reclusive La Monte Young. Young’s groundbreaking, drone-based works of the early ’60s set the stage for Riley and the rest. A 2011 recording of Gibson’s quicksilver Aqua Madora, played on just intonation piano and sine waves, captures his work with Young, with music rooted in Rāga and drones.

Randy Gibson
Randy Gibson by Stern Weber Studios

A similar austerity reigns in Fly By Night, a recent album from Adrian Knight. One can hear the ties between minimalism and ambient music—formalized by Brian Eno in his 1978 Music for Airports—played out as moody, ethereal clouds of sound.

And there are, of course, many composers today who harness just a smidgen of the rigor of minimalism and redirect it toward other goals. In Judah Adashi’s my heart comes undone, a reimagining of a Björk song inflected by the Estonian minimalism of Arvo Pärt, Lavena Johanson’s cello is looped to create an impassioned soliloquy.

Eve Beglarian’s Until It Blazes—released on an excellent album by guitarist Giacomo Fiore—is another example of riveting postminimalism. There is a nervous jitter to Beglarian’s processed music, which gradually accrues little strumming riffs that play off each other. Its restraint feels constantly on the edge of explosion—an explosion that finally occurs in the final seconds of the work. Much of the success here, as with Chow’s and Lee’s recordings, lies with the virtuosity of the performer, who balances clarity with a sense of vastness.

Giacomo Fiore
Giacomo Fiore

The mournful, abstract cello and vocals of musician Hildur Guðnadóttir—whose latest, Saman, came out in June—offer a perhaps unlikely companion to the repetitive sentiment of Beglarian and Adashi. With plaintive vocals sung atop a droning cello, and a polyphony of still and moving lines, the song “Heyr Himnasmiður” resembles, if anything, the minimalists of medieval music. I have no idea whether this falls under any conception of minimalism as discussed above; I just really like it.

Rewind and Come Again!

Tomas Palermo is a San Francisco-based DJ and music curator, and has written for XLR8R, SF Weekly, United Reggae, and other publications. He loves playing reggae vinyl, 10-mile runs in Golden Gate Park, and Papalote’s prawn tacos.

Dub Store Records

“…we have to be like a rub-a-dub soldiers, fighting to keep the rockers’ music alive.”

From a Little Reggae Shop in Tokyo…

At Naoki Ienaga’s Dub Store reggae specialty shop in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, no detail in preserving reggae music history goes unnoticed. Even their in-house sound system is pure vintage: an Altec amplifier, mixer and speakers, a Studer 2-track tape deck and an RCA dubplate cutting machine. It’s physical proof of Dub Store’s serious respect for Jamaican music. The same level of attention to crucial aesthetics has informed Dub Store’s extremely active reissue series, which has seen close to one hundred rare and out-of-print titles brought back into circulation on both vinyl and digital formats.

The music Dub Store chooses to present is exquisite. From psychedelic, soulful sides on Derrick Harriott’s Crystal label, to ram-jam dancehall scorchers from King Jammy$ label, Dub Store has tapped into the deepest diamond mines of vintage Jamaican music. The sleeves and artwork are also above par. Thick cardboard jackets, vivid inks and original label art adorn their releases. It’s as you’ve discovered a mint copy of your most sought-after tune in a dusty Kingston basement. Imagine the thrill of hearing Lynn Taitt’s sparkling, rocksteady guitar licks for the first time, or obscure 1980s dancehall jams from Robert Lee or Carl Meeks. Dub Store releases definitely induce goosebumps for the devoted reggae fan.

Dub Store has really changed the game for collectors and Jamaican music enthusiasts alike by forging deals with institutions like Federal Recording Company, home to the Kentone, Federal and Merritone imprints, which delivered countless hits in the ska and rocksteady era. Then there’s Dub Store’s collection of hard-to-find titles on King Tubby’s Firehouse label, deep cuts from Bunny Wailer’s Solomonic label, sublime roots by Kiddus I and Glen Brown, and the list goes on.

So how did this obsession with releasing rare reggae music from respected Jamaican imprints like Studio One, Merritone, and Redman International arise? We chatted via email with a very busy Mr. Ienaga on Dub Store’s origins and motivations, and their experiences in Jamaica unearthing the island’s finest recordings.

Dub Store Records, Naoki IenagaNaoki Ienaga

Thanks to Gregory Gouty for his assistance with this interview.

Bandcamp: Japan and Jamaica are both island nations, and the Japanese have always shown a great interest in Jamaican music, from bands like Mute Beat in the ’80s, to the World Clash-winning Mighty Crown sound system, and Japanese women being crowned dancehall queens. Why do you think there is a special respect and relationship between these two nations?

Naoki Ienaga: Jamaican people like and trust Japanese people; they’re always very nice to us. I really give thanks for it. What I’ve heard from many Jamaican [friends] is that the Japanese are solid people living in the Far East; we’re different from other advanced nations. [The support we get] in Jamaica makes it much easier to do things [there]. 
The Japanese culture is so different from any major western mindset; the Japanese always get deep into other cultures from an early stage, and do top-level [projects] with them. 
We don’t have any limits in our beliefs; we are free in what we trust. There’s no oppression from the government, unlike some other Asian countries. I give thanks to our ancestors; Japan is a good country.

BC: What was the very first Dub Store reissued vintage Jamaican 45 and why was that particular title chosen?

NI: The first reissued 45 on Dub Store Records was “Graduation In Zion” by Kiddus I, backed with the unreleased track “Salvation.” I had known Kiddus for a long time from my visits to (Soul Syndicate guitarist) Earl “Chinna” Smith’s house. I had all of [Kiddus I’s] released vinyl, so I offered to work together, but I was thinking only those released tracks were available. Later, I went to [British reggae band] Matumbi’s Studio in London and Inner Circle’s studio in Miami to pick up Kiddus’s master tapes and I found plenty of killer unreleased tracks–top-notch recordings with top musicians. Around the same time, we released two Jennifer Lara 45s that I produced in Jamaica using the Studio One recording venue. I got kind support by the late, great Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, and we used original 1970s Studio One rhythm tracks from their multitrack tape vaults. [Dodd] was a true gentleman.

Kiddus I

BC: What are your five current favorites from the Dub Store reissue catalog—the songs that really have captured your interest and love for the music?

NI: I have been handling high-end rare vinyl for over 20 years now. I know the majority of those tunes, but what surprises me are unreleased tracks, alternative takes and dubplates. There are many unreleased top recordings that appear on Dub Store Records, such as Kiddus I, Kentone, Merritone and Studio One, all taken from the master tapes. I was really shocked when I found and played “Freedom Sounds”, “Soul Brothers” and all those alternative takes and unreleased tracks of Don Drummond’s recordings at Studio One, where this music was originally recorded in the ’60s. For me it was almost like discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in 1922!

BC: The re-releases of Derrick Harriott’s Crystal label are especially potent and enjoyable. From Keith & Tex’s “Stop That Train” to the Chosen Few’s “People Make the World Go Round,” these are some of the very finest moments in Jamaican music. Tell us more about meeting Derrick, and how you came to be issuing these important recordings.

NI: Those Derrick Harriott tracks are certain people’s favorites, big hits, everybody loves them.
 I have known Derrick Harriott for over 15 years and he is always a very nice person. A lot of artists and musicians are always hanging out at his store [in Kingston].
 Derrick asked me to do an exclusive reissue distribution deal in early 2000, but it failed to materialize. But a partial payment had already been made, so I proposed to him that I do a reissue project by myself. He was very helpful, and went to the vaults and found tracks from the master tapes that sounded fantastic.

King Jammys

BC: Obviously another huge label for Dub Store is King Jammy$. I am sincerely impressed and amazed by some of the crucial titles you have chosen to reissue such as Tonto Irie’s “Life Story” or Robert Lee’s “Come Now,” not to mention Dennis Brown’s all-time classic, “The Exit.” Tell us about meeting King Jammy. Also, why do you think the digital dancehall sounds he helped create are seeing such a strong resurgence in today’s “digi-dub” scene in Europe and elsewhere?

NI: Jammy$ studio is in the notorious Waterhouse neighborhood in west Kingston, so I did not go there much in my early days. But I started to go there in the early 2000s. King Jammy is a very hardworking man and a good family man, too. I really want him to keep doing what he is doing, as he is really one of the last big [studio] men from the 1970s still making music. Jammy$ catalog is really big. He had his own studio (located in his actual house), so he didn’t have to worry about the studio time, and he had all the best [engineers and studio musicians]—men like Bobby Digital or Steely & Clevie.
 He did a lot of recordings intended to be big hits, yet at the same time, he did many recordings with a traditional roots element that were far from commercial successes. Everybody bought his hit tunes, but only a minority showed interest in those unusual, obscure tracks in those days. Now listeners in underground music culture have embraced those minor-chord, heavy steppers rhythms; and those tracks deserve it.

BC: Many of the Merritone and Kentone titles you have reissued I had never heard before. Tell us about these gems–were they truly lost items existing only on reel-to-reel tapes and stampers? What effort did you have to go through to put these out?

NI: The majority of the Kentone 45s are some of the rarest ska singles. Merritone had many more releases, and some were hits, like the Hopeton Lewis tunes, but the rest are rare and priceless 45s.
 Federal Recording in Jamaica was a big company, but their 45s were pressed in smaller quantities than other labels, and probably didn’t sell too well. Federal had a recording studio, pressing plant, photo studio, label-printing factory–everything they needed was in the same place. They didn’t have to worry about recording costs, so they had quite a good amount of unreleased tracks. 
Working with original master tapes is not an easy thing; some of them don’t have proper documentation on their covers. We have to get a clue from what is written there to guess as to the contents. When you play old reel-to-reel master tapes you have to be very careful because they break easily, and spliced edited tapes always get separated, so they need to be spliced again and again for every track, which takes ages. But it’s a lot of fun too.

BC: Did you work directly with any Jamaican record pressing plants, such as Dynamic, to find some of the original artwork? Or did you find the artwork via the original producers and label owners? 

NI: I love Dynamic Sounds, good old Byron Lee’s place (of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires), but they have their own stuff in their catalog, which is not my favorite music. But I like all the employees there and Mr. Lee. Most of the artwork we use comes from the Dub Store archives, or sometimes a producer supplies us with photos and flyers, but it does not happen all the time. I also have friends who have helped our label with their own records and memorabilia.

BC: Jamaica is a place of danger and beauty. Do you have any special stories of being in Kingston, looking for records, meeting artists, or having to watch out when things “a run hot”?

NI: Jamaica is, like locals say, “no problem.” At least for me and for my friends. The early ’90s were more rough, but it’s 2014 now. There is some low-level petty crime and people are always in search of something, but they don’t bother solid people who have self-confidence. The police harass us more often. I have so many funny stories in Jamaica, but I don’t know what to tell now!

Dub Store Records

BC: Finally, when you first opened Dub Store in Japan, what was the public’s immediate reaction and how are things now?

NI: I first started as a mail-order service selling high-end collectors’ items. I put an ad in a magazine and people called me for my mailing list. Each time I sent my monthly mailing list to customers, the phone didn’t stop ringing for two days. The [majority] of the listed items were sold out after a couple of days. A few years later, I opened Dub Store. There were many people waiting for me on the opening day, lots of hard-core reggae specialists.
 Originally we catered mainly to the serious reggae customer, up until the late ’90s, when we started to do distribution. I do not know what people think now, but we have to be like a rub-a-dub soldiers, fighting to keep the rockers’ music alive.

15 Recommended Dub Store Titles…

Chosen Few – People Make the World Go Round

Covering the Stylistics’ Philly soul classic, vocal quartet Chosen Few keep the song’s melancholic feel intact via pitch-perfect falsetto vocals and “bop-bop” backing choruses. Meanwhile, backing group Now Generation’s Mikey Chung, nearly steals the show with his jazzy guitar solo in the track’s waning minutes.

Gladstone Anderson, Lynn Taitt & The Jets – Glad Sounds

With pianist Gladstone Anderson sharing the lead with the equally capable guitarist Lynn Taitt, this supremely enjoyable rocksteady set includes covers of Desmond Dekker’s “Intensified,” the Gaylad’s “A.B.C. Rocksteady” and Carlton & The Shoes’ “Love Me Forever.” Taitt’s solid ensemble, The Jets, ably handle rhythms popularized by Studio One, Treasure Isle studios and labels.

Glen Brown – Forward the Good

South Kingston-born vocalist, melodica player and producer Glen Brown has been active since the 1960s. He’s recorded and released tunes by Prince Jazzbo, Sylford Walker and Gregory Isaacs, to name a few, on his South East Music, Pantomine and Dwyer labels. His own solo material is particularly penetrating, illustrated by his searing “Forward The Good,” saturated with Brown’s soulful wails and steadfast timber. Don’t miss the stupendous King Tubby-engineered dub version “A Way With the Bad,” featuring The Skatalite’s Tommy McCook’s haunting flute riffs.

Derrick Harriott – Do I Worry

Dub Store Records, Derrick Hariott

Derrick Harriott’s terrific cover of the Ink Spots’ 1941 hit dramatically reconfigures the song into a minor-key rocksteady scorcher, and for our money, betters the original song’s gentile presentation. Harriott delivers a rich, heartfelt performance that bears a similar conviction to his equally important tracks “The Loser” and “Solomon.”

Dennis Brown – The Exit

To collectors of rare digital reggae music, this anguished performance by Dennis Brown counts as one of the genre’s strongest-ever vocal performances. The fact that Brown is accompanied by the sparsest of Casio melodies doesn’t diminish this song’s impact. This is digital dancehall at its most elemental and emotive. The backing riddim is the same used for Courtney Melody’s “Screechie Across the Border.”

Nitty Gritty – Play Round the World

This King Jammy dubplate was intended for play in battle on his Super Power sound system. The digital dancehall track features Nitty Gritty, who was one of several Waterhouse (a Kingston neighborhood) singers who proffered a distinctive off-key vocal delivery. Like his cohorts Tenor Saw, King Kong or Anthony Red Rose, Nitty uses his unusual technique to draw the listener in, and convince you that King Jammy$ will be flexing his mighty international prowess in the clash. Sound boys beware!

Keith & Tex – Hypnotizing Eyes

Singing duo Keith Rowe and Texas Dixon’s best-known hit is “Stop That Train,” a song used as the backing track for Scotty’s “Draw Your Breaks,” featured on The Harder They Come soundtrack. But “Hypnotizing Eyes” is an equally amazing side where the singers convey both sadness and ire at the “little girl” with the “eyes of an angel.” Released in 1968, near the end of the rocksteady era, the tune features a haunting electric piano riff that provides a soft counterpoint to Keith & Tex’s wistful harmonizing.

Lynn Taitt & The Jets – Batman

Released on Merritone Records, a division of Federal Records, this soulful rocksteady version of the 1960s Batman television theme song faithfully includes female choruses singing the title, just like the original. But the roiling brass ensemble and a tasteful trumpet solo make this a distinctly Jamaican rendition. The flip, “Joker,” is a danceable rocksteady instrumental that hints at the shuffling reggae beat that was soon to come.

Roland Alphonso – Sai Pan

Federal Records head Ken Khouri relied on sound system owner Winston Blake to be his ear for new talent and music trends for releases on Merritone Records. It was perhaps Blake’s recommendations that led them to release some of The Skatalites’s saxophone player Roland Alphonso’s best works. “Sai Pan” is a hard-to-find tune released in 1966, and features a rueful Far East melody atop its swinging ska rhythm. Musicians like Alphonso excelled at serious jazz improvisation, and this track proves it.

Kiddus I – Crying Wolf

Kiddus I

Kiddus I is known for his appearance in the respected reggae film Rockers. He also worked with Ras Michael’s Sons Of Negus and recorded at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio, but has remained very much an enigma. Like fellow devoted Rastafarian singers, such as Burning Spear or Ijahman Levi, Kiddus’s music explores spiritual and socially conscious material. Although his best-known song may be “Graduation In Zion,” tunes like “Crying Wolf” reveal an artist full of depth and poetic introspection.

Henry Buckley – Beware of All Those Rude Boys

Like Alton Ellis’s famous rude boy warning “Dance Crasher,” Henry Buckley appeals to Kingston’s young thugs to cool it down, while advising others to “beware of all those rude boys going around with their guns, spoiling everybody’s fun.” What’s remarkable is that Buckley name-checks a number of the competing gangs at the time in the song, probably at some risk to his life. The song’s lazy tempo also provided dancers a nice break from a typical ska dance’s frenzied pace.

Eric “Monty” Morris – Blackman Ska

Another Federal Recordings sub-label, named for founder Ken Khouri, Kentone also released songs by Stranger Cole, The Sharks and Ernest Ranglin. This previously unreleased protest song, mastered from the original tapes, features an ardent Eric “Monty” Morris unleashing a strong condemnation of the economic trials faced by the island’s majority. “The rich shall be richer, the poor shall be poorer, something must be done,” sings Morris, over a taut ska beat. This is a quintessentially Jamaican moment–music that’s musically rich (horn solos, brilliant melodies), but also conveys a conscious social message. From Morris to Marley, these sentiments have remained popular and important.

Johnny Osbourne – Line Up

Singer Johnny Osbourne’s ”Line Up” is a rare recording on dubmaster King Tubby’s Firehouse label that features a superb spoken introduction by Fuzzy Jones, the distinctive voice sampled recently for Kanye West’s “Mercy.” This 1980s dancehall-era tune was intended for use in sound clash competitions, and calls for crowds to “line up to come in a the dance.” Trevor Levy’s potent “Nah Run From No Clash” is the second selection of this set, with Levy adapting Burning Spear’s “Swell Headed” to run off competitor sound crews.

Carl Meeks – Danger

Hugh “Redman” James can rightly claim a spot along the great producers during the dancehall era’s ’80s and ’90s peak. Like releases by Lloyd “King Jammy” James, and Bobby “Digital B” Dixon, tunes on the Redman International label were usually chart-bound. Redman productions are noted for their heavy, crisp musical arrangements, with drum machines and synths tuned to perfection. It was the ideal backdrop for innovative, falsetto-yodeling vocalist Carl Meeks to unleash his unique singing approach. Due to his underground profile, Meeks has become a collectors’ favorite with modern digital dancehall aficionados. “Danger” is Meeks at his sublime best, lashing out at those who would try and fight his progress. Check the track’s killer dub b-side.

Prince Junior – Crucial Boy

This track from 1986 originally appeared on the dancehall compilation Prince Jammy Presents, Volume 2. Prince Junior never achieved great acclaim, but it’s rare reissues like these that validate Dub Store’s mission to preserve the “heritage of reggae music.” Junior rides this minimal Casio-style beat to the fullest with a wailing delivery that recalls Junior Reid, Yammie Bolo or Carl Meeks.

Dub Store Records, Naoki ienaga

New in Bandcamp Pro: Video!

If you’re a Bandcamp Pro subscriber, you can now present unlimited HD videos side-by-side with your music, with nary a lick of integrity-destroying advertising in sight. You can feature a video at the top of your album page, like so:

Featured Video

Or just display your videos inline, like this:

Inline Video

Videos are also organized in a new video tab, and look great on mobile (where they’re automatically optimized for lower-bandwidth delivery):

Video Page

You add video from the album or track editor, here:

where to find video upload

And there’s even a new embedded player that lets you and your fans share your videos with cover art and direct links to purchase:

Video Embeds

We will now make sure it works really, really well by embedding several videos that you should watch immediately:

Quantic

Red Fang

Kandle

Shabazz Palaces

Alphabets Heaven & Deft

American Football

Iron Reagan

Some things you may be wondering:

Why can’t I just embed a YouTube video? That would be so much easier, and then video could be free instead of Pro-only! True, but then you risk having commercials for Olive Garden at the top of your site. Bandcamp is a service by and for people who care deeply about music, and part of that is not wanting to see every last piece of art in the world co-opted as “content” against which to sell ads for stuff you don’t need. We also didn’t find this to be all that reassuring.

Vimeo Vimeo Vimeo! Better, but we also don’t want to rely on/require an account at a third party service.

That’s all fine and good but I don’t want to dilute my YouTube view counts because there are human beings who actually decide what to make popular by looking to see what is already popular. By all means, if you’re view-count-sensitive, continue to direct fans to your YouTube videos! You might consider adding your videos to Bandcamp as well, because they’re a great way to round out your identity and boost sales from the fans already checking you out here (me, I went from Red Fang ambivalence to money-throwing-fan as soon as I saw the above video for Wires).

Unexpected Inspiration

Shakey Graves by Josh VerduzcoPhoto by Josh Verduzco

“The music I intend to make, the music I actually make, and the music I have made are three different things. It’s up to me to define it.”

When Alejandro Rose-Garcia—aka Shakey Graves—played Washington, D.C. this summer, he didn’t expect to find the scope of his forthcoming sophomore record and the title of the work itself laid out before him on the walls of a national monument.

It was the last night of his first true headlining tour, a successful run of sold-out shows that concluded at The Hamilton, the Capital’s ritzy music hall that sits just steps from the White House. Rose-Garcia was touring with little more than his guitar and the kick-drum he’d fashioned from an old suitcase, and he somehow wound up taking in the illuminated, alabaster walls beyond the fences guarding the emerald lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from a balcony somewhere above the stage he’d played, shortly after his bare set. The admiration for his surroundings didn’t quit, and the next day he and his manager took the venue up on an offer to ditch the band van in the loading dock and sightsee for a bit before heading out.

What followed was a whirlwind trip through the Smithsonian Institute, that sprawling collection of artifacts and treasures that catalogs everything from unearthed dinosaur bones to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Their stroll brought them from the dawn of man to the achievements of modern society. Right before they were getting ready to check out the astronaut suits, the Smithsonian closed for the day, and they found themselves making their way toward the Lincoln Memorial as the first timid drops of an impending storm fell.

“It’s really majestic, and it has this ‘Roof for Everyone’ kind of feel to it,” recalls Rose-Garcia of the visit to Lincoln’s stony seat. Making a beeline for the words carved into the walls near the massive statue, he found himself faced with two of the President’s most iconic speeches: the Gettysburg Address, delivered in the midst of the Civil War on the grounds of its bloodiest battle, and the Second Inaugural Address, a solemn oratory that mourned losses felt in the wake of a conflict that nearly tore the country apart.

“I took a knee, and I’m soaking wet, and I read the whole thing out loud,” he says. “The Second Inaugural is written really, really well; it’s one of my favorite speeches. I just really paid attention to it, and flowing around in my brain is everything I just saw [at the Smithsonian]—dinosaurs, insects, amazing gemstones—the majesty of the earth, right? And then you go to this place that’s all about this horrible war. We had just toured all the Civil War states, so it was just compounding things.”

Shakey Graves by Kirk StewartPhoto by Kirk Stewart

That’s when he found it: “And The War Came.” Dripping, slightly delirious from the wild night before and completely by accident, Rose-Garcia encountered the title for his official label debut with Dualtone—and the perfect statement that framed each and every one of its songs as prologues and parting thoughts—in the words of a President who somehow forged a future from a shattered past.

“The statement, ‘And the war came,’ it stands alone,” he says. “This war had already come, but it sounds like it’s impending at the same time, like something’s about to happen while we’re looking back in retrospect. The title means a lot in the sense that this is uncharted territory for me, but at the same time it’s very familiar. It feels looming, releasing an album on a full scale and my first time working with a label. It’s essentially one of my first times really collaborating with other people. It’s a pretty big departure from my previous work, and the onslaught of things going well and being able to tour with a ton of crazy bands all felt very dramatic in a good way.”

Given the lyrical and stylistic breadth of the record, it’s easy to see why. Unlike the experimental, solo explorations of 2011’s Roll The Bones, And The War Came is concentrated, deliberately varied, and the product of pushed artistic limits. The bereft, heartbroken “The Perfect Parts” and frenzied breakdowns of “If Not For You” may revisit the discordant and unhinged sensibilities of the man who played in open tuning and favored a shoddy suitcase to an actual drum for percussion, but the quality of regret and rage echoing long after Rose-Garcia delivers the final note feels totally new, and we’re not sure if he’s mourning a relationship or on the cusp of ending one.

“I don’t think any of the songs run off too deep into things that have happened to me,” he says. “I think that talking about death is a metaphor for any sort of death—emotional death, losing a friend to drugs or to another city, to losing a loved one. Just having general change in your life. It’s very much an album about things changing in your life, and it feeling as dramatic as if it were a battle, because sometimes everything hits at once.”

His collaborations with singer-songwriter Esme Patterson are arguably the most approachable on the record. The cheeky “Big Time Nashville Star” throws a slight side-eye to his indie success, and the triumphant “Dearly Departed,” the album’s immediately likeable single, has already garnered a smattering of YouTube covers.

Rose-Garcia still writes and records the majority of his work with a home studio setup in Austin, but And The War Came is polished in all the right places and the fortified foundation from which he can continue to craft the next chapter of Shakey Graves’ story. (The tonsil-ripping screams of “The Perfect Parts” were laid to tape on a whim in a basement in Seattle while he was in town for the Sasquatch! Festival, but that’s an exception, not the rule.)

Shakey Graves by Nina WesterveltPhoto by Nina Westervelt

“I hope And The War Came points in a direction that people might not expect,” he says. “The music I intend to make, the music I actually make, and the music I have made are three different things. It’s up to me to define it.” He doesn’t feel tethered to the acoustic guitar and suitcase drum, and despite the fact that And The War Came was pulled from a page of American history, his ties to Americana and folk are as mercurial as the weather that met him at the Lincoln Memorial.

“I imagine my records in the future will be a little less themed,” he says. “No matter how crazy I try to make it sound with a guitar and a suitcase, there are only so many things I can do. I like that it’s taken more of a Western, American side to it, but that wasn’t my intention. I might make a rap or folk or country or really weird mixed-bag album or a garage album. Get used to having no idea what I’m doing, because I don’t. I know where it’s coming from and where the songs come out. And sh-t is getting weird.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,486 other followers