Chuck Johnson is a Bay Area-based guitarist who has built up an impressive body of solo work over the last decade, moving from one quality label to the next: Three Lobed, Scissor Tail, Trouble In Mind. Refining and re-defining his approach to the guitar with each subsequent release culminated in last year’s Basalms. Showcasing Johnson’s mastery of the pedal steel, the record is a sustained work of soothing deep listening.
It has been extraordinary to witness the tremendous output of independent artists in support of causes they are passionate about amid the Trump administration. Particularly inspiring are the very small artists and projects that have been able to leverage their art to create a real impact, such as participating in Bandcamp's ACLU Fundraiser Day. Glassine is the recording project of Baltimore-based artist Danny Greenwald, and he created the piece "Day 1" as a sonic journal of his experience at the Women's March, D.C., weaving in field recordings with some light looping and embellishments. The result is a humble, direct, and evocative translation of his experience. All proceeds benefit Greenwald's local Planned Parenthood and he has raised over $700 so far.
Reflecting on his inspiration and process to AdHoc, Greenwald said: "The march was the most inspiring happening that I have ever been a part of. I went alone and felt totally surrounded by love in a time of absolute disaster. I am generally always recording when I am out living my life—so that is what I did. Protest music, chants, hymns, children, adults, Spanish, Arabic—there was so much aural stimulation... and there was this rhythm, like a tremolo. I am trying to describe an almost ambient cadence—like how when you hear crickets chirping but you don't hear the individual chirps unless you listen really hard. Or a really windy drum roll. Cricket chirps and snare hits are generally singular and sudden, but if you get enough of them together at the right speed it creates this angelic noise that you could sleep to because it is so peaceful. On the train home I decided that I wanted to create a piece of sonic journalism out of the whole thing that reflected that idea while also recognizing that the march was a response to our country spiraling into peril. And I decided that if I was going to share it with the world then I should try to do my local Planned Parenthood in Baltimore some good."
Listen to the single, which features artwork by San Francisco graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton that was drawn on-site, below, and donate via Glassine's Bandcamp.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a musician and composer currently based in Los Angeles. Her music blends expert modular synthesis with a strong sense of structure and a singular approach to voice and melody. In a crowded scene of musicians empowered by inexpensive home recording gear as well as a renaissance in classic synths by legendary manufacturers Buchla and Moog, Smith distinguishes herself with an emphasis on the natural world as inspiration—mindfulness of the human element. Her latest record is conceived as a single continuous piece and represents a culmination of her work so far: a standout record of obsessive detail and plaintive beauty that reveals new depths with each listen.
Where are you based now? I know you lived in the Bay Area for a long time.
I am in LA; Glendale to be exact... There’s lots to explore and there’s a really active art community right now which I’m really enjoying. It feels like when I first moved to San Francisco.
Can you discuss the connection between nature and the Buchla synthesizer and the other tools you use to make your music? How do you translate the inspiration you get from the natural world to your musical practice?
It comes out of past experiences when I’ve sat and listened to the lush auditory environment in nature and how hard it is to pick out a singular sound source, because insects are overlapping with each other or with the sound of rustling. I had a lot of fun with dissecting that and using that as a foundation to build environments that are overlapping and feel visceral. I wanted to create a sound environment for listeners that felt like there was a lot of movement to it.
Chuck Johnson is one of the pre-eminent players in the current crop of solo guitar practitioners that includes Steve Gunn, James Blackshaw, Daniel Bachman, and many others. Since 2011 and the release of A Struggle Not A Thought on Strange Attractors Audio House, Johnson has released two more records of solo guitar on closely-watched underground labels Three Lobed and Scissor Tail Editions. His latest album Velvet Arc(streaming in full below) is a refinement and expansion of his signature style, adding a rhythm section on some tracks and instrumental flourishes such as violin (played by Marielle Jakobsons) and synthesizer (by Johnson himself). The result is a relative departure for Johnson—particularly the languid, toe-tapping B-side of the record, which slides comfortably “in the pocket” and recalls the Bakersfield country sound.
We spoke with Johnson on an unusually quiet Super Bowl Sunday a few blocks from the studio space he has occupied for years in downtown Oakland.
Sitting backstage in one of the recently opened bar/restaurant/performance spaces that are cropping up weekly in downtown Oakland, I’m listening to the members of California space rock group Mammatus explain why they seemingly disappeared between 2007’s The Coast Explodes and 2013’s Heady Mental. The band has just finished a blistering live set to a devoted crowd, celebrating their latest 2xLP release, Sparkling Waters. Along with like-minded, low-key crews scattered around the country such as Portland's Eternal Tapestry and New York's Oneida, Mammatus have been refining an elegant and distinctive mix of heavy instrumental psych-rock and more far-out tendencies for nearly a decade, on their own terms and at their own pace.
After a triumphant tour with Acid Mothers Temple following Coast’s release eight years ago, “life got in the way,” according to bassist Chris Freels. The typical trifecta of marriage, kids, and “career-type jobs” led to a six-year break between official releases. But all that time the band was playing music on a near-weekly basis. Guitarist Nick Emmert explains: “Thursday nights were not only our music night, but also our ‘man night.’ We’d all get together after work, barbecue and beers, and then we’d play music.
“In that period we started writing all of these things," Chris added, "and we kind of got ahead of ourselves. Even the album we’re releasing now, it was part of a group of songs we were writing. We nearly started working on these songs before we even recorded Heady Mental." The songs became Sparkling Waters, a sprawling opus just out on Spiritual Pajamas. The record contains only three lengthy pieces, with the monolithic title tune taking up an entire LP on its own. Sparkling Waters is a revelation, Mammatus's strongest and best-sounding record to date.
When I wrote about Palmbomen II's superb self-titled record on RVNG/Beats in Space for AdHoc's mid-year roundup, I lauded that fact that Kai Hugo's music came out of nowhere. Deepening the mystery, a series of music videos supporting the album have trickled out this year. The final installment of this series utilizes an ingenious framing device, with an introduction that straddles the line between deadpan hilarity and earnestness; the video itself is a self-aware comment on Palmbomen II's style. This video-within-a-video presentation allows for a seamless, self-reflexive collaboration with animator Thomas de Rijk. Before signing off, the video's host remarks that the music is "a great mix between natural sounds and sounds that they're familiar with," a statement of naive profundity that captures the unique and enduring appeal of the record.
My first experience of Sonic Youth live was the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival the group curated in 2002 at UCLA. I was nineteen years old and had just moved to Los Angeles for college. The mind-altering lineup that Sonic Youth convened for ATP’s first event outside the UK was a crash course in the outré musical practice that would continually spark my fascination in the years since. The festival also gave Sonic Youth's individual members a chance to showcase their extracurricular interests, in side projects and one-off groups. The band's cultural camaraderie with established and up-and-coming underground artists, and the implicit endorsement of an alternative rock canon spanning from 20th-century avant garde composers to No Wave, has long been as influential as Sonic Youth’s records themselves. Collecting all of these disparate influences under the band’s aegis—Cecil Taylor and Big Star, Merzbow and Peaches—made ATP 2002 a signal event for the contemporary underground.
Although Sonic Youth never shied away from experimentation on their proper releases, it was in the extraordinary variety and quantity of the band's side projects and collaborations that the breadth and depth of their influences could be most felt. The band's core members Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, and Lee Ranaldo (the latter of whom plays Trans-Pecos, Ridgewood on November 13) have each, on their own, cast an important shadow on the last thirty years of rock music. Below are a few select moments of brilliance among the many that exist "beyond" Sonic Youth.
Lea Bertucci and Leila Bordreuil are recently-emerged mainstays of the contemporary New York improvisation scene. Over two years ago, they initiated a duo collaboration that was subsequently documented during a 2013 session in a desanctified church in Hudson, New York. Those sessions are finally seeing release as L’Onde Souterraine, now available for pre-order on Telegraph Harp. We reached out to Lea and Leila via email to quiz them about the ever-changing New York scene, improvisation as an approach, and the developing position of female musicians—their artistic practice and their media depiction. Lea Bertucci performs Tuesday, October 20 at Issue Project Room with Bradley Eros and Anthony Saunders as part of her 2015 residency.
AdHoc: Lea, you spoke about moving more towards composition with your 2013 residency at Roulette. I understand this record is a document of improvisations, however were there any composed or planned elements?
Bertucci: I’d say this record is a mix of both purely spontaneous improvisational moments and planned structure. Some tracks have edits but others are full improvisations. In general, both composition and improvisation are part of the same musical process for me. Sometimes a piece demands more specificity with pitch and musical gestures, but other times I incorporate guided improvisation or site-specificity. I recently did a piece called “Double Bass Cross Fade” where I had two double bassists positioned on opposite corners of a 50,000 square foot room. They moved toward each other over the course of 40 minutes, their sounds wirelessly amplified through a 10-channel sound system. For this, I specified a set of techniques, general structure and musical ethos to the players, but not specific pitches. I like the idea of an expanded approach to composition, where certain unconventional sets of rules are put into motion.
Steve Hauschildt first came to notice as a member of Emeralds, the late lamented trio comprised of himself, Mark McGuire, and John Elliot. Since the group dissolved nearly three years ago, Hauschildt hasn't released a proper solo album, following two commanding full-lengths on Kranky in 2011 and 2012. He breaks this relative silence with Where All Is Fled, a monumental double LP that is a testament to patience, restraint and deliberation. I reached out to Hauschildt via e-mail to discuss the legacy of Emeralds, playing live and the pros and cons of profligacy in the underground scene. Where All Is Fled is out now on Kranky.
AdHoc: Compared with your compatriots in Emeralds and some in the noise/ambient scene generally, you aren't nearly as prolific—at least in terms of official releases, and especially in the last five years or so. Is there a specific reason for this? Did you feel like the "vault clearing" was accomplished with the S/H compilation release? Are you generating as much material and just a lot choosier about what gets released and in what format?
Steve Hauschildt: Prolificacy is ambiguous, so in terms of officially releasing stuff it may appear like I'm not prolific—but in terms of productivity I think that I have been just as prolific as everyone else if not more so. One factor is that for six years straight my old bandmates and I were constantly flooding people with releases as Emeralds, and this took up a lot of my time and energy since I was working and finishing up college at the time as well. I was pouring the majority of my ideas and work into the band and not proportionately as much into my solo work; however, I was still developing my own sound continuously.
We were aware of how bands like the Skaters, Yellow Swans, and Double Leopards were doing mass self-releases and limited runs on smaller cassette / CD-R boutique labels and wanted to be a part of that ethos. It was definitely a magical time, and I don't think the North American experimental scene will ever be as fruitful or communal as it was back then. Trading was not only commonplace but people actually listened to the shit that you gave them. What a novel concept, right? Anyway, I don't really intend to indict anyone who releases a bunch of stuff but at a certain point I thought that the model was kind of limited.
It's great if you make a cassette over a weekend and there are people who understand the personal value of that, but it's also imperative to spend a lot of time on a record and have that be your calling card if you want to be taken seriously. S/H was definitely a kind of vault clearing and it was a very personal and necessary thing for me to put that stuff behind me. It's unfortunate in a way that it didn't come out a few years earlier because I think it may have given people a better perspective or understanding of the way things actually unfolded. As I've gotten older I've tended to spend more time on the songs and projects I'm working on, so I don't think I'm really generating as much material to be honest. I'm probably more selective though.
Indian Jewelry have existed in the margins for over a decade now, playing their fried 20th century rock in Houston, far from the coastal beacons of underground culture and haphazardly renaming their touring incarnations. If WGAF is an operating philosophy, it's a fruitful one for the group who have issued a steady stream of material since their 2006 word-of-mouth sensation debut LP Invasive Exotics. Just in time for the hopeful retreat of a never-ending summer, the group's latest LP Doing Easy - a title which both describes and cannily subverts the music within - is released today. Lurching from the head-nodding, seductive deadpan of "Charmer" (lyrical references include Abu Ghraib and Fukushima) to the synth-inflected workout "Luxury of Regret" (an evocative, impenetrable koan of a title matches an equally haunting tune), Doing Easy feels initially baffling but quickly becomes addictive, a quality the group shares with the recently resurgent Royal Trux. Doing Easy is released today on Studded Left (CD/Digital). Vinyl will be available in November via Reverberation Appreciation Society. Indian Jewelry tour Europe this month.