“Sound in darkness as a conduit for haunting”: an interview with Rob St. John

Rob St John, Stainforth Force
Rob St John, Stainforth Force

This was first posted on the Liminal back in late 2012. Rob’s done a ton of things in the interim, all worthy of your eyes and ears. You can read about them here, and follow him on Twitter.

Rob St John feels like an avatar of an older tradition. The ‘folk’ tag has become somewhat hollowed out, a dead signifier; but vestiges of the tradition remain, and remain oddly powerful in their ability to both evoke the particulars of place and lever open channels to the past. St John, across a variety of projects – musical and otherwise – has revealed a keen eye for specificity and an alchemical descriptive capability; he also appears to be adept in listening to the clamour and babble erupting from that open channel and focusing it into some semblance of a coherent narrative. Weald, which came out late last year on Song, by Toad, was a record of what you might call, in a non pejorative sense, ‘hollowed-out’ folk music – the tracks were as much resonating caverns as actual songs. But there was also a smeary, vague quality to it: on a molecular level syllables colaseced, meanings blurred; on a broader sonic level, instruments followed this pattern and cross-fertilised. The result was an enigmatic thing, a gothic puzzle to which the ear slowly attuned. St John has been busy since, curating here and travelling there. We talked about Weald and the various projects St John is involved with – now and in the coming months.

Where are you know – what’s happening? And where have you been in the last month or so?

I’m currently in Lancashire, where I grew up, watching the rain fall outside.  I’ve been travelling around the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland with my partner, for the last few months: walking, writing, fishing, attempting to keep reluctant peat fires going.

You recently wrote a soundtrack for the Jeremy Deller’s documentary about Bruce Lacey – could you tell us a bit about how you became involved and how you came up with a soundtrack?

Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams got in touch to say that they’d heard my record and whether I could contribute some new music to the ‘Bruce Lacey Experience’ documentary they were putting together: specifically something to soundtrack Lacey’s free festival days. I’d been planning to move away a little from the dense, droney and dark thing we did with the last record. Whilst it was probably appropriate and cathartic at the time, it’s not a reflection of where I am now – both personally and musically. So the recording was an opportunity to tie together some of the music that has been recently exciting me lately and experiment with some new sounds. It was good to play some soft, rolling folk guitar again, underpinned by whirring synth and flitting flute, fiddle and saw, all recorded live.  We recorded about 15 minutes of new music. The film showed at Camden Arts Centre until September (2012) and will be released on DVD through the BFI later in the year, I think.  It’s fantastic to be involved with a project related to Lacey, he’s a national treasure, an eccentric mischief (and myth) maker. Maybe we’ll sort something out with the rest of the recordings for a small release, but it’s likely that the ideas and textures will turn up on the next record.

This is probably a bit of a loaded question, but would you categorise Lacey’s stuff as whimisical? What do you make of whimsy? And the notion of Lacey as some kind of shamanic figure?

In some ways, I suppose, but then again whimsy is a very subjective idea, isn’t it? In the documentary, he describes himself as a ‘professional piss taker’, I think. There’s a tradition there in parallel to the Goon Show and similar – seemingly light, silly entertainment that serves to skewer and satirise its subjects on a very subtle level. I’m a fan of his later works: as you say his shamanic, free festival Earth Rituals in the 70s, and his proto-play work, installing great climbing frames for inner-city kids. There’s a curiosity and wonder that runs through his work, a freewheeling optimism, confidence and willingness to experiment and invent. I think the idea of curiosity and ‘I wonder’ underpins many important discoveries – whether in the arts or sciences – but is something that is being increasingly lost by many people creating ever smaller frames of reference through the way they interact with and curate the technology around them, a safety net that it’s scary to move beyond.

To come back to whimsy, I guess I’ve no radical opinion. I suppose Weald was the opposite of a whimsical album, wasn’t it? It was very dense and layered, and I wanted it to reward repeated listenings, to retain an element of obscurity to allow the listener to attach their own thoughts, experiences, whatever, to. But as I say, whimsy can be a vehicle through which to approach and express darker, more complicated subjects sometimes. Look at the Syd Barrett solo albums: he was clearly suffering with mental health problems, and the records are laden with whimsy, with terrapins, octopuses and effervescing elephants. There’s an immediate surface of whimsy over a darker undercurrent.

Weald

You said that you’re looking to move away from the density of Weald – what’s driven that? Did I read somewhere that you used 80-odd tracks on there?

I think you need to keep evolving – however incrementally – in terms of the music you make. It’s so easy to be pigeonholed, and I respect artists who can continually reinvent themselves. Weald was the first of (hopefully) a set of records I’d like to make, and whilst the weight of it (lyrically, thematically, musically) suited my state of mind at the time, it isn’t a record I want to make again. It was cathartic, something between miserable and whistleable, but you need to keep moving.

We used 80 odd tracks – yes – but across 8 songs that isn’t really a great deal. Weald was a very quickly recorded thing – we spent two days on it from start to finish – with a few mixes and that was it. Layers upon layers, conducting players coming in and out to play their parts. We’ve played these songs live for a year or so as a relatively settled band and they’ve certainly evolved. I think it’s this evolution – for the better – that makes me want the next record to be more band-led. We’re mooting putting it out as a ‘band’ record under a different name, which would be exciting.

I’ve all but written the next record, mostly during an intensive few days in a house that once belonged to Hugh MacDiarmid on Whalsay off Shetland, trying (in vain) to keep a reluctant peat fire alight. Perhaps, not surprisingly, after reading On A Raised Beach for the first time whilst I was there, I became a bit obsessed with deep time. It’s very acoustic guitar led – more in common with ‘Emma’s Dance’ off the last record than anything else – and very lyrically dense again (positive, this time!).  How to write about positivity and happiness without lapsing into cliche and hyperbole is a new challenge.

You’re quite protective, if that’s the right word, of the meaning of your songs, or at least reluctant to say what they’re ‘about’ as such. I was quite intrigued by the ‘I never came down from that trip’ line in ‘The Whites of Our Eyes’ – is there anything obviously psychedelic in what you’re doing

I sing ‘I never came down from that tree’….but a fair few people have heard ‘trip’…so when we play live I’ll intersperse the two words to blur things a little. I like mishearings such as this – attaching your own meaning, mythology, or whatever. ‘Whites of our Eyes’ will be on the next record, so I guess I’ll have to solidify things a little on it – at the moment it blurs into ‘Domino’ during the live show in a 15 minute squall of feedback and drone (maybe the next record won’t be quite so quiet…).

That’s another thing that’s interesting, whether the recording is the definitive version of a song, or just a snapshot in a continuum (albeit one that’s more mapped out and planned than others)? I’d say every song should continually be in flux, every set should bring in something new or otherwise forgotten, to keep it fresh, both for us and the crowd. At gigs, we play as a band, and try and make each show a one-off, responding to the surroundings, the crowd, the other bands on the bill. Pushing and pulling songs into each other, expanding and contracting them. As a result, we’re playing far fewer shows than perhaps a year ago. In the summer before Weald was released, I played a lot of shows solo in small black-box venues in small towns to small crowds. I’d rather we played as a band, in interesting venues, where we can tailor the set to suit. I’d like to start using projections more during shows too.

To go back to meaning in songs, they’re intentionally left relatively ambiguous. I’m interested in dense, cryptic lyrics that draw on a whole range of ephemera and situations, from daft (whimsical?) to serious. Every line of every song should mean something to you, but also provide a host of scattered satellites for the listener to anchor themselves around, whether that’s through mishearings or whatever. I like collecting words: I fill notebooks with them, and then have to drastically cull them from new songs, save having to provide a thesaurus in the liner notes. It’s about finding the line between the real and the imagined, quiet revelations that most of us experience in one way or another. Everything that goes into the songs is real and thought through, but I’m interested in how they are interpreted so differently.

I’m intrigued by your use of obscure words and dialect-specific terms and phrases – particularly Lancastrian and Scots. Gerard Manley Hopkins used to go out ‘collecting’ words – from specialist dictionaries and dialect dictionaries etc. He had a collection which he called his word hoard which sounds kind of similar to your approach. Is there a certain kind of magic in these old, dying words?

There’s a magic in the unusual and useful, I think, in the place and time-specific, the words that pop up out of a locally specific need, rather than necessarily their scarcity or danger of extinction. Maybe it’s important not to become some lyrical magpie, picking and choosing indiscriminately, but I think you can use certain words and phrases to ground your songs in specific places, times, atmospheres, and give the listener another chance to follow up on things. I enjoy art, records, books where you feel compelled to pick up a notebook and scribble down references, things to follow up, ideas. I don’t know a great deal about Hopkins, except a little about his proto-free verse – sprung rhythm – and the way he moulded and melded words together. I like the way Nabokov does a similar thing, his use of portmanteaus, moulding words to new uses, a playfulness in his structures, rhymes and narrative riddles.

We have a funny tradition of dialect poetry and song in Lancashire. It’s still strong as a culture, but I think that the emphasis on dialect and the use of anachronisms can sometimes come at the expense of content, maybe performers set themselves up as some sort of novelty act rather than as a documenter of what’s actually going on. So you have to be careful, y’know? For me, folk music (if you even need to define it), is all about people writing eloquently and interestingly about their condition in a certain place.

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Domino’ is probably the darkest and densest thing on Weald – it’s got that Old Testament fire about it. I’ve puzzled over the title and the lyrics and only found out recently that the word comes from the French for mask. How did the track come about?

‘Domino’ is the oldest song I still play. It began as open-tuned folk song, and it’s about self-preservation and kindness. Whether they’re mutually exclusive. Maybe it’s also a little about sea trout fishing. It’s now a real cathartic squall of sound when we play live, like we egg each other on to make it louder than the last. I like that association with ‘mask’, it’s quite fitting, I guess.

Are you wary of the ‘folk’ tag? Is it still useful as a description?

I’m not wary as such. Folk music is still such an important, meaningful thing, but its very nature means that it is (and has been) open to the push and pull of change and appropriation. And that’s largely good, I think, but it means that ‘folk’ means multiple things to different people, is open to flux and change, and probably always will be. Look at the British Folk Revival in the 1950s and 60s. We often look back to that era as part of an unbroken tradition, but in reality there were a whole bunch of agendas playing out with Ewan MacColl and others over what folk was, and for whom. Similarly, go back to the start of the 20th century, and to the work of folk song collectors such as Cecil Sharp, again the notion of ‘folk music’ was wracked with questions of authenticity and appropriation.

Regardless of any of this, people singing out together with whatever instruments are to hand will never go away. Like I said before, I think more than instrumentation or sound, folk music is about telling stories and histories of place, landscape and local distinctiveness. So, I guess we do a lot of things with our music that have a lot in common with traditional folk. We use a lot of close, but often improvised, vocal harmonies, and we’re increasingly using fiddles, recorders, autoharps, picking out drones and modal scales. It helps that Tom Western (who plays keys) is a researcher into Alan Lomax and the practice of field recording. The next single we’ll put out is a Lancastrian traditional song called ‘The Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey’, a split with Woodpigeon, both of us tracing our family histories through folk songs.

You’ve worked in a number of ‘collective’ situations – in and around Edinburgh, mostly. Has that had an effect on your writing and the style of music you play? Is there more forthcoming from the Braindead Collective and Eagleowl?

Yes, I’ve played with a lot of people over the last few years. I play full-time in Eagleowl and Meursault, and I help out other projects from time to time. Things were especially fertile around 2007-08 in Edinburgh, putting on shows in disused spaces and putting out short-run, home-made EPs. The collaborations forged then are still going now. The collaboration with Braindead Collective happened during a winter when I lived in Oxford, where we got together to improvise on a newly written song, recording the first take in a beautiful old church.

Has this year been typical in terms of being involved in so many different things? Could you tell us a bit about the Ghosts of Gone Birds project you’re involved in?

Things have been busier this year, for sure, taking on more projects. I like to keep busy. I’m not sure what is happening with Ghosts at the moment, as I think there’s been a personnel change recently. The last exhibition, in London, brought together a set of artists to make new work based on bird extinction in aid of the conservation charity BirdLife. I went with Ceri Levy (the organiser, up until recently), and a small group of artists to Malta in the spring, so we could all see the effects of illegal bird hunting first hand, and again base new work on this experience. I took hours of field recordings at dawn and dusk when hunting was most common, of gunshots punctuating the still air. We’re working on plans to use all of this work in some way next year.

Pendl1,1612-poster

You’re involved in a music project to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials. Could you tell us a bit about that?

I grew up in a small village called Sabden on the side of Pendle Hill, in East Lancashire. 2012 is the 400th anniversary of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, a series of persecutions of people (mostly women) from the southern flank of Pendle Hill, on account of accusations of witchcraft. In the local area, the trials are now largely interpreted as cartoon-like caricatured black silhouettes of witches that adorn buses, pint glasses, gift shops and pubs. 2012 saw a host of local ‘celebrations’ of the trials, including a Guinness World Record attempt for the ‘number of people dressed as witches on a hill’.

Many of these celebrations and remembrances strike come across as a bit superficial and trite, I think, and so at the start of the year I set about trying to put together a record commemorating and interpreting the trials in a more appropriate way, however small. Early on, David Chatton Barker from Finders Keepers records offered his help, and to release the record through his imprint Folklore Tapes.

We’ve now finished the project, for release in November and have put together some great collaborators: Dean McPhee, David A Jaycock, drcarlsonalbion (Dylan Carlson from Earth), David Orphan, Tom Western, N Racker, Magpahi and others. Our contribution is a track called ‘The Mandrake’, a reinterpretation of a poem by Victorian author William Harrison Ainsworth, whose writings about Pendle and the trials echoed Walter Scott’s in the post-Clearance Highlands, lending an imagined romanticism to bleak histories. The project will be released on limited edition tape and download in a box containing writing on the trials, screen-printed maps, pressed nettles and other ephemera related to the area.

I’ve not been to the area, but there are some descriptive passages of the landscape in Robert Neill’s book Mist Over Pendle that are genuinely unsettling and imply a kind of menace in the landscape itself.  Is there a case for arguing that certain areas/places can have a negative effect?

How do you mean ‘negative’ – on your own self, whilst you potter through the landscape?

I think that’s what I mean, yes – I think anyone who spends enough time out and about eventually has an inexplicable experience where an area/place/time just feels wrong somehow. I tend to be fairly sceptical about stuff like that and yet… Chris Watson said something in an interview in The Wire that’s always stuck with me (extract taken from issue 318)

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I hadn’t seen that interview, nor had I heard of TC Lethbridge. It’s interesting. David Toop says something in Sinister Resonance about the role of sound in darkness as a conduit for haunting. About how ghosts prosper in the dislocation of the dark, as sound is an ephemeral, fragile, unreliable, perhaps even unfamiliar, means of understanding your surroundings. You hear differently when you record in the field. With your focus on sound, your concentration picks up on what you may otherwise miss in a more multi-sensory landscape (and soundscape). On Weald, we used a set of field recordings by ace sound artist Patrick Farmer. One recording, of tree roots rubbing underwater in a stream, stood out and serendipitously mirrored the rise and fall of the bellows of my harmonium grumbling and groaning at the start of ‘Stainforth Force’. I guess, when you dislocate sounds from their landscape, they lose their certainty of origin, and can be reinterpreted, in whatever way you choose. The drones in Richard Skelton’s recordings – recorded outside, a melding of the sound of the landscape and the instruments – are beautiful and very affecting for this reason. But as in the Chris Watson thing, this dislocated stream of sound can be really disorientating and troubling.


So, to return to the question, no, I don’t think that some landscapes are necessarily more menacing or ‘evil’ than others, it depends entirely on what sets of thoughts, ideas, preconceptions and experiences we bring to them. Some are more inherently dangerous, sure, some more bleak in landscape and weather. But never any inherent malevolent force. Going back to the idea of sound as a carrier of hauntings, I suppose it is in these dark, northerly landscapes- from Scotland, Scandinavia – that a rich set of mythology and folklore has sprung from.

But I think that your experience of a landscape is determined largely by what you bring to it, by the thoughts and knowledge you have in your head. It’s like the ‘peradam’ mountain in that novel Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal, some things are only found by those who – however unconsciously – go looking for them. I’ve no real love for the idea of ‘wilderness’, of a landscape where you can purge yourself of problems, get back to some simpler, Edenic nature. Every patch of the earth has been trampled, gridded and girdled by maps, development, history. Most people assemble different histories of a place, that go with what they’re comfortable with, what they have been told.

The set of writing about the Pendle Witches, by Robert Neill, William Harrison Ainsworth, even back to Thomas Potts’ original document of the trials might set a precedent for how a visitor might feel when walking on Pendle. But is Pendle more mysterious or spooky than another Pennine hill?  No,  but you’re guided by the preconceptions you bring. The narratives of the trials in the local area really are so mixed up. They veer from the misguided and disrespectful (I’ve a walking book by Ciccerone on the area, that punctuates walks with descriptions of the accused witches as ‘repulsive old hags’ and ‘ decrepit, sightless, old crones’) to the banal and cartoon-like (cuddly toy witches, mass walks up Pendle dressed in capes and pointy hats). People tend to forget that these were real people, caught up in a web of persecution, superstition and fear.

The ‘Pendle 1612’ release that I’ve part-curated is a response to this. The box in which the release is housed will contain a series of ephemera and information, including a map of the area, and the witches route to trial from Pendle to Lancaster. We’ve spent a lot of time populating this map with photographs, grids, information that we think is relevant to the trials, which has been an interesting process that I guess ties together a lot of what I’ve talked about here, especially when trying to highlight the role of the persecutors in the trials. What to you include, prioritise and draw links between, when trying to construct a visual history?

In the middle of this process, I went to the Patrick Keiller Robinson exhibition at Tate Britain in London. I like Keiller a lot, especially his Robinson stuff. It seems a rich, almost playful approach to these knotty problems – the way he assembles such a constellation of – at times seemingly ephemeral – information, and traces a line made by walking through it all. To me, his work is encouragement to delve into the history of places and landscapes important to you, that through putting all this information that others have perhaps disregarded together, the most important thing is that you become connected to these places and landscapes in your own individual way. In a way, that’s what Weald was. I have no historical connection with Lancashire other than I was born here – my family are from Ireland and Derbyshire. It was a way of finding meaning.

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An interview with Scott Tuma

Scott Tuma. Image by Robert Loerzel
Scott Tuma. Image by Robert Loerzel

This is an interview that took place over email back in October and November of 2011.

Scott Tuma’s position in what constitutes the modern folk scene of America is a strange one. He is at once a reclusive and elusive figure, standing at one remove from the vicissitudes of the wider sphere of influence; and yet it’s perfectly possible to trace the evolution of his signature sound and note just how synchronous this evolution has been with the wider movements of the scene. In the late 1980s he worked with the slowcore alt-country pioneers Souled American, before moving on in the mid ’90s to the haunted post-rock of Boxhead Ensemble. Since 2001 he has largely worked alone (though he has worked with Mike Weis, both alone and with Matt Christensen in Good Stuff House), producing four inimitable albums, that take elements of these former bands, plus a humming wild ambience, and mix them into what could be called a meta-commentary on the American tradition. His sound summons early Lomax field recordings, Fahey, English folk ballads, and something older and more earthy, or rather it manages to contain echoes of all these things within its vaulted, cathedral like sonic properties. We talked about the history of his sound, the effect of the Chicago weather on his recording techniques and why no-one dances when he plays live…

MP: To start in a very English fashion, it’s just turning to autumn here – we’ve had a weird period of really warm weather, but now it’s getting cold and the leaves are falling. Whereabouts are you at present, and what’s happening outside?

It’s great that you start out talking about the weather. I love talking about the weather and some people don’t understand why. I am in Chicago and summer split rather abruptly about a month ago but now we are having our period of beautiful warm weather. Almost summer like except for the lack of humidity and the sounds coming in through the windows. The cicadas are gone, the leaves are turning and falling and rustling in the gangway and street and there is less sounds from kids playing , them being back at school. Inside our house, here where I play and record, the sounds have changed too. When the heavy humidity leaves the air the guitars and organs sound different. My fingers and nails sound differently to me; I start to change what and how I play; but I am trying to hold on a little longer to the summer feel until it isn’t possible anymore.

That makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop and where she used to live in Brazil – they were so high in the mountains, clouds would drift through the open windows. With the changes in weather and the influence it has on your sound, do you choose certain times of year to record?

Since I don’t really write songs, and I also have never really gone out of town to perform on my own, what I do is play and record, pretty much all the time – as a way of life. What and how I play then necessarily changes seasonally and that has always been my goal: to have the seasons, where I live, who I live with, and how I live all be reflected in the recordings. Where I find I get a little distracted from it is when I am asked to perform a show here in town and I have to concentrate on what I will do for it. What I do daily doesn’t translate as performance so I feel I have to come up with something to do to be entertaining and that can take my head away a bit; sometimes I am grateful for the break and sometimes not. One solution, for a couple of shows at a club near here, was to perform here at home and send it over on a pirate radio transmission; but that only works for very short distances with the equipment I had.

That sounds fascinating – is there a copy of that available?

I am not aware of any document of either of those shows, and I am not really all that interested in documents of my performances. I like to remember.

I’m intrigued by that notion of inclusivity in your work – incorporating environmental conditions and moods etc. Does that extend to other areas, for instance what you’ve been reading or watching?

As far as relating to stuff seasonally, I guess the goal is to not have to think about it and let it occur naturally. I am not a very big consumer of those things, also not a very big consumer of music, but thinking of other things, what we eat changes with the seasons, what we wear, like I said sounds change, the light changes affecting what we see. If something is not working I’ll try to not force it. I feel that my relationship with acquaintances changes as well, especially with musical collaborators – I feel that we have certain seasons that work particularly well. Some have more seasons than others and I don’t really know why.

That seems like a good time to ask about Souled American if that’s OK. Could you tell us something of those times?

Sure, they were just getting started and I knew them a little and loved their music and I was just beginning to try to play guitar and record music on a 4 track. So I asked if I could be in their band and amazingly they allowed me. They were – and are – really great musicians. As I was trying to figure out how and what to play they just insisted that I just sound like myself which was good advice

What do you make of the Souled American legacy – that sense that they are seen as something of an ur-alt country band?

I don’t really give it any thought. As far as I know Souled American is still a band.

Were you still with Souled American when you started playing and recording with Boxhead Ensemble, or did this naturally follow after?

No, Souled American was an all or nothing situation, so when it wasn’t working out for me and I left it, I didn’t really have any direction for myself since my only musical existence was creating guitar parts for their songs. So it took a little time but eventually I felt I had found somewhat of a voice. I was still using studios to make recordings and decided to try out Truckstop studio – in part because they said they had a vintage antique pump organ which turned out to be a wheezy inoperable piece of junk; but I met and recorded with Braden King. He had just finished his film Dutch Harbor, and we liked working together and did some more recordings and then when he did a tour of the film with lots of musicians he asked me along. So through that then I met Michael Krassner and eventually Joe Ferguson who was operating the Truckstop label and he put out Hard Again and The River for me.

How did you arrive at your ‘sound’ for The River and Hard Again? If one goes looking for it, it does seem possible to trace a journey or pattern out from the slow workings of Souled American and the creakier post-rock tinged ambience of Boxhead Ensemble, but is that too neat, is it more nuanced and chaotic than that?

I like songs but I’m not a songwriter so I started collecting songs and certain melodies that appealed to me and would put them together with the idea of playing them as skeletally as I would play in Souled American and have that be the main part. But it was still me playing and playing pretty much the same way. The first thing I did with The Boxhead Ensemble was a screening of the film followed by different sets of musical performances and I would play a set of material with various musicians. Toward the end of the tour we started doing some of that along with the film. I never was very involved in any studio recording that Boxhead was doing apart from some things we did here at my house, but that was also specific material. I am really terrible at just improvising stuff so even with the other performing I did with them I would bring some songs to mix in with the improvised stuff.

Without an encyclopedic knowledge it’s often difficult to gauge to what extent you employ traditional melodies and also work in your own – melody fragments are often so suggestive it feels like the present leaking into the past and vice versa. That word ‘collect’ implies a certain amount of archiving. Is that true of your work? How do you approach the tradition?

Well, a song or a melody could come from anywhere, not just traditional music sources, but I know when I hear something that it belongs to me or I to it. And yeah, then after some years of playing things different ways , recombining them, forgetting about them for a time, then re-remembering and learning them again but maybe differently, they sort of turn into something of their own. Some songs I can point to as straight up versions of a song, some I can remember the sources and some have evolved beyond my memory of where they came from. I try to rely on my memory but along the way I’ve always made a lot of tapes that help me to remember things.

I often get the sense of being inside your sound, as if it were a huge resonating chamber, and when you used that word ‘skeletally’ before, is there something of a process of ‘emptying out’ or ‘scouring out’ in your work?

Lately I’ve been working on one song at a time, recording it a lot until I feel it gets somewhere and so I’ve noticed that as it progresses I play less and less. I guess especially once there are a few different parts each one takes a little room and I can play any one of them through without playing much at all.I guess I like things to be as much implied rather than presented and that way it invites participation more than just attention.That people would imagine themselves in the song and making their own part to it rather than simply listening. I guess the way I tend to record , pretty quietly with room mic’s pretty open usually in a pretty resonant room adds that feeling as well.

Black on Maroon 1959 by Mark Rothko
Black on Maroon 1959 by Mark Rothko

That idea of emptying out and yet inviting in makes me think of Rothko and listening to The River again recently, I was struck by the almost monkish, devotional quality of it – what part, if any, does religion play in your work?

Really not at all, except that I do like church music; but I wasn’t raised with much religious affiliation and never developed any. In fact it was Souled American’s increasing insistence that their catholic upbringings be the guiding force of their music and method that made it made it pretty impossible for me to be a part of it. But it would be right about that time that I became really taken with Rothko. There are a few here and there was an exhibition of his earlier work and then I went to New York to see a retrospective, probably around ’98 or so. I don’t know much about him and prefer to just experience his work, but I definitely felt that these big resonating pieces of pure feeling were something to try and emulate in music. They seem to be free of any need to intellectualize and are so resonant as to invite you in and participate in the feeling. The front and back cover of Hard Again are collaged from photos I was taking of one of his paintings that hangs here in Chicago – the first I’d ever seen I guess.

Is that sense of anti-intellectualism something you consciously try to approach in your own music? Do you think your work resists interpretation to some degree?

Oh, I wouldn’t say I’m anti intellectual, I’m just drawn to stuff that is more about feeling than some sort of analysis. So I don’t consciously avoid anything, I just follow my nature. I always expect to see people dancing when I play. They don’t, but that’s OK. I don’t know about interpretation, it would be my hope that it would avoid comparison, but that is for other people to say right?

You’ve said you don’t play live a huge amount. Have you played in Europe much? Any plans to come to the UK? We promise to dance….

In the past , trying to set up shows for myself out of town I’d found , really no interest , so at some point I decided to not worry about it and concentrate on the recordings until anything presented itself to me. Here in Chicago some sporadic shows come about, usually through Mike Weis.

Scott Tuma - Dandelion. Artwork by Chris Koelle.
Scott Tuma – Dandelion. Artwork by Chris Koelle.

Going back to your covers, what prompted the vinyl release of Not for Nobody and how did you hook up with Chris Koelle for the stunning art work?

Yeah, Erik Keldsen was interested in doing the vinyl and of course I was thrilled to do it. Chris Koelle got in touch with me to say how much he liked The River record and we became acquainted. He did the cover for Dandelion as well, and an art edition of original prints for it.

I was curious as to why you decided to include vocals on ‘Nobody (River of Tin)’, ‘Reprieved’ from Not for Nobody and ‘Hope Jones (For Jason)’ on Dandelion: if it’s not too crass a question, what are you singing ‘about’?

Well, I like singing, I usually sing some when I play shows, I sing a lot at home… I guess I’m not very good at recording my voice though. ‘Nobody’ is an old song of mine; there is a longer instrumental version of it on the record from the first Boxhead tour and a bit of it on The River as well. The title of it comes from the lyrics. I guess I finally got a version with singing that I liked – two actually. I wouldn’t try to define any meaning, that would be the listeners choice, the words to ‘Hope Jones’ are pretty simple though.

What do you think about the idea of the ‘New Weird America’? And I suppose as a corollary of that, what of the legacy of Fahey?

I’m just trying to make recordings as a way of my life. It doesn’t seem like there is a scene of that; I don’t pay a lot of attention so I wouldn’t know about a movement. Nobody’s asked me to their festival so far! As far as a resurgence or cycle, again , I don’t pay much attention but it would seem to me that those have always been around in some way or another.

You’ve always had elements of noise in your work, but some sections of Peeper were quite looming and abrasive (thinking of ‘Free Dirt’) in particular. Is that something you want to explore more? And it’s great to hear the birdsong on ‘On A Beautiful Day’, too – they sparrows?

Yeah, I’d love to have more tracks that sound like that. It just wasn’t too easy to get for me. I’ll Keep trying and maybe a season will start for it. Yes sparrows – they’re thick in the vine at my back door and chatter like that when it’s cold.