A Nail Into The Empty Sky: A Conversation With Steve Hauschildt

A Nail Into The Empty Sky: A Conversation With Steve Hauschildt

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.

One of the last Emeralds shows I saw was just yourself and Mark McGuire playing under a freeway overpass for All Tomorrows Parties in New York City in 2012. Do you have any specific memories of this performance? Did you and Mark have any discussions about playing as a duo going into it?

I remember that we were the first band to play that day for some reason, so there weren't that many people there yet, as it was pretty early in the day. If I recall it was pretty windy during the performance too. Frank Ocean headlined that night, so in my head I thought there would be more people—but it didn't really work out that way. Matt Mondanile, Prince Rama, Steve Lowenthal, etc. were there hanging out with us, and it was a good time. It was also weird like brushing past Janeane Garofalo backstage and getting interviewed on a boat. It was nice to play outdoors in NYC for a change, and I appreciate that you were there and enjoyed it. We knew it was going to be a duo performance ahead of time since John had other plans to play in Australia or something. So we had plenty of time to rehearse and practice as a duo. 

Emeralds were a crucial band for my own musical evolution—the music you made as well as the influences you introduced myself and many others to. The band seemed to end with a bit of whimper—was that a disappointment? Do you still keep in touch with Mark and John?

It definitely is strange that Just to Feel Anything ended up being the swan song of Emeralds. It's kind of a crap record, and I don't think I've really listened to it since we finished it. I find it odd that there are people who like it. Thinking about that record just gives me anxiety. It was recorded well but ultimately was a constricted record, and so I honestly just took a backseat on most of the songs, as I was going through some heavy personal issues at the time. I think it was apparent by the time that record had finished that the "life force" of the band had kind of been sapped and that it was time to call it a day.

I am glad we were able to play one final, sold out show in Cleveland before the disbandment though. I actually didn't want to have to announce the end of the band and deal with the ensuing media circus, but my main reason for doing so was that I didn't want there to be any uncertainty regarding the fate of our band with our listeners. Honestly, it is the fans and the nice things they say that keep me going, so I did it out of respect even if I came off as a little boastful during the announcement. I felt it was worth taking on any blame or negativity just to have closure and leave the past behind me. I don't stay in touch with them that much since we are all kind of doing our own thing these days even though we are all living in Cleveland again. Every once in awhile I will see John at a Cavs game or show, and Mark has a baby daughter, Terra, who I met and held in my arms earlier this year. So yeah, we're definitely not mortal enemies or anything like that.

Can you expand a bit on this recent tweet: "The "lo-fi" concept is perhaps the most trite and asinine thing I can think of and is actually completely antithetical to my modus operandi." Do you mean lo-fi as a lazy designation for certain kinds of art and music—or are you specifically impugning something like early lo-fi indie rock such as Sebadoh or Guided By Voices (these are still the hallmarks of "lo-fi" to my mind)?

Let me preface this by saying that I'm the only person in the world who has a Microphones The Glow, Pt. 2 tattoo, which I got like a decade ago. I don't have any other tattoos. James Ferraro used to make fun of me in Antwerp in 2009 for having a K Records tattoo, but honestly that record is still pretty sick and something that I think people designated as "lo-fi." I'm pretty sure that we got drunk once and James told me that he secretly likes The Shins, so he will probably kill me for saying that—but that's what you get. So anyway, to clarify—yeah, it's not a jab at GBV or anything; it's me criticizing the laziness of someone using that term to describe music, videos, etc. in 2015. The Chán master Línjì Yìxuán once said that labeling something is a lot like trying to drive a nail into the empty sky.

It seems that there is a lot of imprecision around the language used to discuss music like yours. Some buzzwords and catchphrases just seems to take hold and are hard to root out. You are very articulate and specific about your intentions in your music and art. How difficult or just plain exhausting is it to keep having to explain yourself when something is described in a totally off-base manner? Do you just want to throw up your hands sometimes?

It just comes with the territory, so most of the time I just deal with misinterpretations as well as I can. If someone really crosses a line I might feel compelled to call them out or correct them on Twitter, but most of the time I don't care enough. For example, a reviewer once said that I used a Casio to make a sound on my album Sequitur. It's not that I hate Casios; it's that they didn't even try to do the research, that I vocoded a TR-808 through a VP-330 for that sound. They could have just asked me or looked at the liner notes in the record.

Concept-wise it's hard to fully convey every single arcane or esoteric aspect or reference in something that I make, so I give a lot of slack with that because I don't expect most writers to do all of the research to fully understand my albums. Although I don't think it's terribly difficult to Google a track title every once in awhile. I don't ever want to say "my album sounds like this artist" either because that's not really my role, you know? My work has pretty much been construed in every conceivable way so I'm mostly immune to a lot of the weird, industry-specific affronts by now. Wire Magazine reviewed Tragedy and Geometry twice—the first time was negative and the second time was positive. Now that's some great editing. Ultimately though, it's not a big deal, and I'm just happy to have people listen to and critique my music.

Is there any chance of your label Gneiss Things being reactivated? The Le Révélateur LP you put out is a treasure.

Thanks, I really enjoy that record as well as everything else I put out on that label. I really wish I had the means to keep putting out records, or at least do A&R because there's so much good stuff out there that needs a home and needs to be on vinyl. Ultimately I just don't have the money to do it, and this, compounded with the fact that every pressing plant in the world is backed up to hell because of Jack White and reissues no one needs, means that I probably won't be reactivating it any time soon. If I do, I will just start a new label entirely—and I actually think about this all the time. I want nothing more than to help lesser-known artists who put so much effort into their music find a bigger platform for their work. If I can just humbly and blatantly brag for a second, I think I was the first person to get Oneohtrix Point Never's music distributed overseas when I sent the A Pact Between Strangers CD-R on Gneiss Things to Volcanic Tongue back in 2008. The rest is history. You're welcome, Daniel.

Where All Is Fled is a major release, clearly the result of years of work and deliberate execution. What is your approach to live playing when your recorded work has had so much thought and effort put into it? What does the live experience afford the listener when it comes to your music?

I basically just adapt live versions of the songs since it would be impossible to fully recreate those songs live, and I don't want to phone it in and pretend that I'm attenuating EQ or whatever. A lot of the live stuff I've done hasn't ever been recorded or released so it gives people a chance to hear something new that can change on a nightly basis as well. Also there is a visual component to the live performances which is unique to each tour and can also expand on themes explored on the record.

Are you active in any current groups or collaborations besides your solo material?

No, but I have a bunch of collaborations planned in my head for next year, so I'm not sure you will see another solo Steve Hauschildt record in 2016. I think I'm going to mostly collaborate next year because I've been putting that off and it's a pretty healthy exercise in a lot of ways. We'll see what takes shape.

How do you pronounce your last name exactly, and was this a source of confusion when you were younger, in elementary school, etc.?

As long as you don't say "house child" it's probably close to the real pronunciation. It's more like "how shult" or something like that, but even that is kind of anglicized. It was definitely a constant source of frustration when I was younger, so I should probably blame my Bavarian ancestors for that one. Every once in awhile I will run into someone who can pronounce it correctly on the first try though. I guess that's one of the benefits of playing in Austria and Germany.

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