Guardian Alien is some other time period's rock band, maybe a time past or maybe a time in the future. The two major current modes of rock music, punk and indie, are focused on songcraft and lyrics and sometimes extramusical elements. Spiritual Emergency, on the other hand, is a cogent, long-form experimental statement which prolapses rock tropes: Bernard Gann's symphonic metal-esque shred, Alexandra Drewchin's howls and non-verbal vocalizations, leader Greg Fox's Boredoms-by-way-of-loft jazz drumming. When a band in 2014 makes an album that would fit better on a spectrum that includes Guru Guru and Acid Mothers Temple, you have to wonder what exactly is driving these people. It's not exactly like the New York music scene is filthy with either this level of formal curiosity or sheer musicianship. I went over to Guardian Alien's house just as photographers from High Times were leaving, and my desire to get to the bottom of what caused Spiritual Emergency, which is out this week via Thrill Jockey, culminated in a discussion about the fantastical being made real through belief.
Ad Hoc: Just starting pretty simply, the new record is pretty different from your last one, See The World Given To A One Love Entity. What were you guys aiming to do this time around?
Greg Fox: We were aiming to document what we were doing at the time, and we wanted to work with [producer/engineer and former Theoretical Girls member] Wharton Tiers.
Ad Hoc: Could you talk more about Wharton Tiers?
Bernard Gann: I was really excited to work with him. I had known his name since I was a teenager just from Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth and all the other stuff he had done. I had always imagined him as a huge rockstar. And then you meet those guys, and they’re great.
GF: Yeah, that’s the thing: meeting him and seeing him play and finding out it was even a possibility that we could get into the studio with him-- it was just exciting. And it seemed that going in with a limited amount of time and budget and a limited knowledge of what we were gonna do, it would end up being something interesting.
Ad Hoc: One of my obsessions is how rock is changing, and where it's going now that it isn't the most popular form of music for my generation. What do you guys see yourself doing with rock?
GF: I think that when you’re making music-- and I think a lot of people I play music with feel this way-- you have this hyper-knowledge of all this different stuff, because of the access to it and what you grew up listening to. We know the things we like from the music we’ve heard, and you want to try to recapture some of those feelings while you’re playing, but you also don’t want to be doing what you’ve heard. So musically, you’re moving toward something you like, but you don’t want to arrive on it, you want to arrive somewhere else. So you make that movement or that energetic gesture, lurch towards fucking killing double bass runs and metal and shit-- like that, but not quite that.
AD: There is a juxtaposition where we’re not all playing the same formula. Like sometimes when I’m playing in Guardian Alien, I look at Bern [Gann], and he’s playing a piece for a symphony, for an orchestra, and it’s this frenzied tremolo. And then I look at Greg, and it’s very much metal and jazz and afro and polyrhythm. Greg is definitely a fractal of all these different beats. Greg is just math; I see math coming off of him the whole time. Then I feel like in that, I’m playing quiet, slow music over such volume because I play folk [solo, as Eartheater]-- gentle quiet songs-- and I get to that same place within the power of high volume and Greg pounding super hard on the drums.
Ad Hoc: How exactly do you all operate as a group?
GF: By sitting down and playing, pretty much.
BG: "Spiritual Emergency" was really spontaneous. It really just happened one day, and it was a new thing. We had been doing a different piece before that, and this just occurred, and we ran with it.
Ad Hoc: So what is the process for developing a piece?
BG: I think it’s usually initiated by a drum beat, right?
GF: Yeah, the drums-- like the changes in the drums and like the things that start happening that stack on top of that. Then sort of recognizing that a certain thing is happening and being like, "Well, that’s something."
AD: I like thinking in movements and having a long narrative. I grew up listening to a lot of classical music and playing a lot of classical music and the pieces were always really long. [Songs versus long pieces] are almost like a TV show as opposed to a two-and-a-half hour feature. You can bring out and reference so many different things over time.
GF: The thing about playing long pieces is that they’re different from each other. They have signifiers and in certain ways something specific, but there is also all this space within it for us to open up. When we’re moving more slowly through sections or movements or whatever, different channels can get opened up in there. I like it because it adds a richness to the overall playing, and the experience of playing it.
Ad Hoc: And what exactly is that richness?
GF: There’s like a little bit of seeking. It’s not a part; people aren’t playing something precomposed. You’re looking for it. Like, you know, there’s a space and people can be in the space of the music. [Those] people can find things that are there and there’s always more to find.
AD: That’s the fun side, I think. Now, when I’m thinking about the different pieces, I feel like See The World Given To A One Love Entity had more of a precise structure. There were parts that we did play, at least vocally. For me, See The World Given to A One Love Entity had actual parts, but in Spiritual Emergency, I’m definitely constantly searching and finding new things. That’s what I love about this record, for me vocally at least: it will continue to evolve.
Ad Hoc: Because the record is called Spiritual Emergency, and because of your band name, I would love to hear about your version of spiritualism. There seems to be some sort of collective consciousness going on, like there was in psych bands like Amon Düül I or Ya Ho Wah 13, which is certainly different from a band just playing a song that one person wrote.
GF: Guardian Alien, the name to me, it reflects that these are things that are thought about or felt.
AD: It just feels really good to play music, and I worship playing music.
GF: I think there’s a microcosm and a macrocosm of metaphors in the way that they can be extended and linked to each other. I think it’s funny that a lot of time people constantly will slip and say “Guardian Angel” when we show up at a venue, or they’re like, “Can I get that Guardian Angel shirt?” It’s this subtle little thing.
AD: I never correct them.
GF: Yeah, what’s the point after a while?
AD: I bumped into the Guardian Angels at Broadway Junction; they were amazing. There were some old heads there; they were beautiful. So down. I got a flyer; I know where to go if I want to go to a meeting. The one guy-- I forget his name-- was like, “I’d put you on graveyard duty. You don’t look like you’re afraid of ghosts.”
Ad Hoc: Which raises the pressing question: are you guys afraid of ghosts?
AD: I had a ghost-y moment in here, ‘cause I work downstairs at the bottom; I sew. I was down here at 2:30 in the morning last night and the rocking chair on the other side of the room started rocking on its own.
GF: If the ghost is fucking scary, then yeah, I’m scared, but if the ghost is some funny dude...
AD: But I actually had a moment where I was going through the dialogue in my head. I was like, “So what if it is a ghost?” And then I was like, “There’s a ghost over there.” And I kind of got the bring it on thing; I was like “Bring it on, show yourself.” I was disappointed when it didn’t come.
GF: It would be rad if the ghost of George Burns just like showed up in that rocking chair, smoking a ghost cigar, just started telling you some old, dry jokes.
AD: That would be amazing. Every night at 2:30 in the morning, a private show. It would be sick if you could capitalize on a ghost, like charge for you to visit my ghost.
GF: So to answer your spiritualism question, if you find a ghost, tell it we’d like to make a deal.
AD: Spiritual Emergency is very ghost-y. It’s definitely a pretty ghost-y piece.
Ad Hoc: What do you mean by that?
AD: Maybe just because I sing through this harmony pedal, which makes it kind of church-y, and I’ve always thought churches were ghost-y. It’s kind of like an equation.
GF: I’m going out on a limb with this: I kind of feel like it’s not clear what’s a ghost or what’s an alien, or what an angel is. You hear stories about that kind of stuff, and some people tell you they’ve had those experiences, and some people don’t believe in them. I like thinking about that phenomenon being something that isn’t one of those things, something that just works through you. Those people having experiences that are spiritual or paranormal or just manifesting different elements that are inside them.
BG: All of those [experiences] would have been just accepted [in the time] before we adopted reason and started categorizing everything and putting it in this box-- like, "No, this must be that."
GF: There’s a consensus made about what that thing is to explain the thing that is happening. It’s like the faeries, how faeries used to be one of those things that people believed in. It wasn’t even a matter of believing-- they were just real. If enough different people are looking at something, it becomes a thing.