Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Jesse Sykes Discusses The Creation Of "Marble Son"

This is my interview with Jesse Sykes regarding her new record, Marble Son, which was recorded with her band, The Sweet Hereafter. For me, three simple words come to mind when I listen to Marble Son: spellbinding, entrancing, and expansive. It's a master work for Ms. Sykes, as well as an incredibly rewarding gift to her followers and admirers. As a fan, I wanted to learn more and share it all with readers. Here's our conversation:

I'd like to just start with some brief history for newcomers to your work. Can you briefly talk about your experiences between your last album and the time when you began to work on Marble Son?
Jesse Sykes: Well, let’s see. The last album, Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul, came out over 4 years ago. For the first 2 years of that window we were mostly touring for that record...... We also performed with the experimental metal bands Sunn O))) and Boris. We appeared with them at the two All Tomorrow's Parties, the one in the UK and the more recent one here in Monticello, N.Y., to perform the collaborative album Altar which I sang and co-wrote a song on. We released two EPs (one was music Phil and I composed for the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s version of The Tempest), and Phil and I also appeared on a Pink Mountaintops album too. 

We mostly tried to stay on track during this time because many things were unfolding that were about to greatly influence our personal lives. When the touring was all done and we began writing for Marble Son, Phil and I decided to end our 10 year relationship as girlfriend /boyfriend. When the recording process began Bill Herzog and his gal announced they were having a child, and Eric Eagle (who recently got married) was on track to do so. I too became engaged and eventually moved from Seattle to Iowa to be with my fiancĂ©, and sadly, within this window, Phil's father passed away. So, among lots of beautiful transformation and growth, there was some real sadness. 

There was also Mark Linkous's (of Sparklehorse who we had toured with in 07) suicide....All this affected us of course.  A lot of these new and epic changes in our personal lives (mostly the breakup of Phil and I) made it very difficult to not only get on course at certain points, but to stay on course. Looking back, it all seems so impossible that it has worked out. I'm amazed and in awe of the fact that we, so far, have pulled it off.
I read on your website that since the last album, there has been a strong influence of the art-metal bands and Southern Lord label on this record. Can you describe this influence and elaborate on what it has brought to your writing process, playing, and interpretation of music? 
JS: The band Boris (from Japan) in particular really opened up a well of inspiration for us...they just have so much variation-draw from a vast spectrum. They are beautiful, nuanced, heavy....Extremely creative...Unafraid. There is a purity and reverence there too that I haven’t seen in a long time in terms of how they approach what they do...It's on their faces, it's in their performance. It doesn’t exist in a lot of indie bands these days...The Boris people to me are true artists...That means being able to evolve and being fearless in doing so. I appreciated that with both bands. There was such a fierce unapologetic commitment to a particular vision...

The word "vision" is important, and I throw it around a lot these days, but to me it's the key component to anyone’s life work-there has to be a conviction and the listener needs to be made to believe in it almost beyond the music...It's like I’m just able to tell when a band lacks this element. So many bands these days are cookie cutter...Their mythologies are as non-existent as their musical ideas are....But these guys are out of the box thinkers...Nothing they do seems "right" yet it all works, or is at least extremely interesting. I began to feel like with more structured music i.e.) singer- songwriter, conventional folk or rock motif ...There wasn’t much I could add or be moved by as a listener...It doesn’t even interest me that much to explore and find new music in that category because it so rarely tops the greatest stuff that's been done already. One of the reasons for this is sonically it isn’t able to break any rules...there is a format that kind of needs to be adhered to and it's quite rigid in my mind. 

So the stuff I already love is such a part of my emotional tapestry that it feels pointless to try and bring more in. If it happens organically, fine (and it does from time to time)...But I’m not seeking it out. So when it came to making our record (which does have some conventional songs), it became apparent that we wanted that variation...We wanted to make an album that could be a journey and incorporate many elements sonically and songs that stylistically didn’t fit in one category. It’s pretty 101 what I’m saying here, and I realize this... I realize there have been lots of records made with this notion, but not so much anymore. Why is that? I mean I don't want to sound as if I have no insight into what I’m saying ...It's vast and complex,  and I’m only skimming the surface. 
I just want it to be clear that what I’m talking about in context to ourselves. For us, we were stretching our limits...To some, it wouldn't seem that our new record is that out in left-field or radical. Again, it is all context-dependent. I have said this from another interview and I’m adding it here as I feel I couldn’t say it any better now:
"Working with Sunn O)) and Boris, playing with them and for that audience inspired us to stay honest with ourselves and the music. This record reflects where I am in life...I’m getting older, life feels more dire, the state of culture feels dire, and the music reflects this energy. A country folk song doesn’t feel like it can reflect this for me, although I wish it could. As I’ve gotten older, there’s more to reflect upon...My palate feels like a monolithic slab, and what I’m drawing from feels vast and impossible to mirror without a similarly varied sonic pallet. And again, there was also a lot of change: Phil's father died during the recording, Bill became a father...Phil and I broke up; I found the love of my life--god, all that change HAD to be embodied in the music. " 

Can you talk about your collaborations with the bands Sunn O))) and Boris, as well as touring with bands like Earth and Black Mountain? What did you find most intriguing about these experiences and what has it brought to your own work- both in the songwriting process and sonically in the studio with the band?
JS: Well, when I find myself being asked to speak about this collaboration, I realize a lot of what has changed in terms of what it has brought to my own work is more from a philosophical standpoint as opposed to the music literally changing. I think as you grow and gain more experience as an artist, and as you speak on your trajectory, you begin to realize a lot more is in your head, and a lot has to do with how you perceive yourself, and as the context starts to change, so do you. It’s less so about the actual sonic, stylistic changes that might be apparent, but to me are inevitable....Therefore, it's somehow less interesting to speak about then the internal changes...does this make sense?  
Working with these folks didn't create a conscious reaction of us trying to become something we weren't or wanted to be...But, it let us embrace the parts of us that I think felt unformed and perhaps misunderstood, not only by certain listeners, but by ourselves as well.  
To answer another part of your question, what I found to be intriguing initially was the level of faith they had in me- that I could take their music and create a song that would work in context to what they were doing on the album Altar...Which is very heavy stuff! So in actuality, it was them going more out of their comfort zone by bringing me into the fold, then it was me leaving mine. To me, they just said "Do what you do" and "We want this to be a pretty song"...So I wrote the lyrics and melody for what became "The Sinking Belle". In a nut shell, what it may have brought out in my work was a confidence as a writer that I could collaborate and make something "make sense" ...
I was really intimated initially for so many reasons, but the whole project opened up a new approach to my singing and my writing...It freed me up...Also, it brought us into another whole world musically that we may not have been privy to otherwise, and for that I am forever grateful...a lot of metal fans are super smart, open-minded, interesting people who like all kinds of music. They always say what they like in our band is the emotional weightiness...They feel that and it resonates...And I appreciate hearing that. 
So maybe another by-product from this experience in terms of writing and summoning of juju in the studio, is that I stopped feeling apologetic for always being classified as "dark" and "depressing" all these years...I never saw it that way. I always thought of our music as introspective or thoughtful-emotionally weighty, rather then “dark”. Anyway, this made me feel like I found an audience that wanted to be "with me" in my internal world instead of punish me for having one.  

So, moving on.....That brings us to Black Mountain who incidentally were fans of Sunn O)) and the song "Sinking Belle"...I think that may have been a good segway for that tour happening. Black Mountain are just great folks to be around. They are very good, sweet people. Musically, I love what they do, but I can’t say they changed where we were going as much as they gave us a place to go. Does that make sense? In their popularity, they brought this niche back to indie music where it's OK to draw from the heavier past but also OK to be ethereal and thoughtful. Boris and Sunn O)) and Earth are all a lot more extreme....The people they reach are as well. The fans have pretty intense ideologies -weather you agree with them or not. It's just a whole other world to some degree. 
Anyway, I think working with these bands, or being among them, sharing shows, etc., just made it more apparent that one can reach further from a particular comfort zone. They made us excited to move forward, and they allowed us, or reminded us, that there are many places to go. It’s not that you don't intuitively know or believe this as an artist...It's just easy to let yourself get dusty and let certain parts of your psyche dry up if there's nothing there to inspire or surprise them into being summoned. They elevated us... They woke us up. We were summoned. 

What were you listening to during the making of Marble Son? 

JS: Before we went in to the studio we'd been really into bands like Can, Hawkwind, Flower Traveling Band. When we were touring we'd listen to this stuff in the van. That's always the best time to either revisit or to turn each other onto new stuff. Then of course I have my mainstays which are Nicolai Dunger, Grateful Dead (older Dead!), George Harrison and Neil Young. Nicolai is my favorite artist out there......But (and I know this might not be what people expect to hear) but sometimes I just don't listen to music at all...I like a lot of silence these days...I don’t have TV and I like to sit and reflect and just look at the sky and tree line.....I like listening to "sounds". 
I find modern music sometimes keeps me in an emotional place that I might need to move away from. Because so much of it reminds me of things past and present-and even beautiful memories can be daunting. It can be very painful to "go there", as it affects me so intensely. I've never been into music as background, so unless I'm willing to "go there" and be sucked in, I'd rather have the silence. I think when I'm going through a heavy duty transformation period (as these last couples of years have been); I need to know I can exist without it.  So the silence provides sort of a cleansing, if you will. Sometimes I just need to remember what I was without music, without any cultural reference points, so I can evolve without any emotional influence from my past, or present. So there you have it.....

Can you describe your writing process for Marble Son, both musically and lyrically?
JS: For me, the process is a lot of making myself psychically and emotionally available for when the inspiration comes. That means a lot of alone time in the mornings and afternoons...After we stopped touring LLL, and then broke up, it did take a while for the reflective period to be useful to me in terms of writing. You see, I was struggling to understand what my life was going to be, what it was going to look like, and I didn't know what that "sounded like" yet. 
So, it was a bit overwhelming...I wasn't convinced we had a record in us at the time. We could barely be in the same room as each other let alone work on music. It was a dark time, but we figured it out by letting go I guess. God, there were times Phil would come by to work on stuff and within 10 minutes we'd be yelling and screaming so much we had to call it quits for the day or, for good even (which happened about 100 times in that period). 
Anyway, I wrote most of the songs here in Iowa, where my fiancĂ© is getting his PhD. Before I moved here to be with him full-time I'd visit a lot and it was my time to write. Then I'd go back to Seattle and show stuff to Phil who was also working on a few things from his end. We would hash it out together as we always have...A couple songs were written spur of the moment when we were together, and were very collaborative in terms of the music side....But most I wrote alone... So, the technical process of writing was the same but the backdrop was different. Initially, this really scared me as my old life in Seattle was very comfortable to me as far as writing went....For so long I’d loved my little home and the way my life looked there....As time went on though, I started to realized my little home was more of a casket. It was no longer a muse because it didn’t reflect where my life was going as opposed to the past...It took a lot to be able to see this and admit this to myself..... Once I gave in I was able to grow, and the music then came to me. 
As far as lyrics go, I never really know till I’m almost done with the process what the gist is, what I’m trying to say...But then it starts to reveal itself to me. This album was obviously about transformation, making peace with the internal and external friction...Notions of faith etc. One thing about this record that's different is Phil was a bit more involved from the ground up in writing. He came forth with more than he has in the past and it was amazing stuff.  He wrote the song "Marble Son"-the music and vocal melody...I wrote the words only, and I've never been so open to giving him the space to be that proactive on the writing side. I mean, it's not that I didn’t want to give the space, it just wasn't there to give in the past, but now all of a sudden it was there, and I love the outcome. He also, of course, wrote that stunning instrumental ("Weight of Cancer") which was originally done for The Tempest (another version all acoustic). So, maybe due to the changes he and I were going through, it forced the record to be a bit more balanced in terms of the energy that we both brought to it on the front end...I feel like it really sounds like the journey we were on for that period....It mirrors sonically what our lives felt like emotionally. 

Was there a specific song, or songs, that set the direction for the album? Or was it more of an organic/ intuitive process?
JS: The first song written was "Hushed by Devotion". That song was done piece by piece, (which doesn't sound organic, I know!) Phil's pieces and my pieces. It was originally constructed in garage band, and it blew my mind when Phil showed me what he had done with it. The guitar work seemed like a 21st century "Maggot Brain" to me-it was a bold statement and it felt like Phil was really testifying in a way that was so pure. I’d never heard anything like that come out of him before! So, we chipped away on it for a bit and then showed it to the guys. 
It really set a bar to what we knew everything else had to live up to, as again, it just seemed so epic and perhaps seemed like a departure for us which inspired us collectively....But to answer your question...It was all very organic in the sense that I think on one level, because I wasn't convinced the band would even survive our breakup, and this freed me up (and Phil, I think) to just do "whatever". We didn't second guess things. We just responded to the way our lives felt....And as I said, our lives felt quite dire...Everything was open, raw, on fire....so though we started with a song that was very masterful and thought out in how it was constructed, it set a bar to be free...Because it's such an obtuse song...It didn't seem to suggest any one direction other than the notion of completely "going for it"! So we did. And that felt organic and intuitive! 

I really enjoyed reading the passage from your website that begins: "I liked the idea of something beautiful that may or may not be appreciated in its own time...of course a statue comes to mind...they seem to last forever in human terms, and they still are considered beautiful and viable even as they disintegrate...." 
JS: Thank you. Yeah, I feel like that really illustrates our whole approach. Making music is just the outcome of my being an observer and along for a ride on this crazy journey-life. I make music not to be so much about "music"...But more so to be a larger part of the whole life experience. It's not meant to be something that will necessarily fit into what we perceive as relevant right now in our culture...I try to stay outside of this creatively, be a fly on the wall so to speak, see things from an outside perspective and let the music reflect this. It's about wrangling chaos and trying to create symmetry and elegance from it...Beauty. It sounds arrogant maybe...But it's the way I operate and always have. 
I'm getting older and I'm very interested in the "process" on all levels...And what's cool about getting older is there is a lot to reflect on...One sort of begins to understand what their path was all about and why things need to be the way they are in terms of one’s art. How they got "there". I may be going a bit out in left field here! But I think a lot about the past in terms of my artistic path and how it is meshed with my psyche, and I feel fortunate to still be somewhat intact because the world just isn't set up for following one's vision. 
In youth there is a lot of smoke a mirrors and it's all about where you think you should be going. I remember in my 20's I'd get frustrated with certain people my age because they often "talked the talk", and then if you were really serious, no one really took you seriously because you maybe hadn't "done" it yet because you were young and still in the beginning of the process, you know? You could sit at a bar and tell people about your dreams and aspirations and that was all you or anyone had to go on to seem interesting......But so many never became what they said they seemingly intended to. When you're young you can pretend to be what you may never become, and youth and beauty can sort of insulate and distract one for a while from the truth and the path. 
But then life knocks you around, or sometimes people just get scared and default to security...So many people I knew back then went for the safe route...That's fine, and in some cases people’s desires change, but I know a lot of people that had a fire but they couldn't wrangle it or they just got knocked off course and didn’t know how to get back. So all you can ask for in life is to have become what you were "pretending" or aspiring to be in your youth, even if the metaphor has changed, if the intent and vision survives with your evolution- it must have been sincere in the first place....And then later you can embrace, reflect, and draw creatively from that process, for me, that process of evolution is all there is and it never stops. 

How collaborative is the recording process with the band and how did you choose to use the studio for this album?
JS: It's collaborative in that we are a band, and I admire and appreciate what those guys bring to the table. They are amazing musicians and very creative. That being said, due to the way this band has evolved over the years, it has always been Phil and I at the helm. We bring completed songs to the band, but of course they haven't been played with the rhythm section yet. 
Before recording we always rehearse them with the band so the basic tracks will be as realized as possible, then we may mess with the lengths etc. Those guys construct their own parts...Generally they get it intuitively, sometimes we wrangle it a bit and tell them what we had in mind. I can’t imagine it's much different than any band on that level. We all listen to each other and we all look to each other for direction when at a loss. Every so often I'll show them a song before it's fully finished or realized, but the meat of it is present enough to know it's going to be a song at some point. I generally don't like to do this as it can be a bummer if they aren't getting it. Some times I've sat on things for a while so people forget them and then I'll bring it back a year later and somehow it'll take. 
We had one song on this album that wasn't taking very well but came out beautifully in the studio ("Wooden Roses"). There's just something about rolling tape that makes you commit to the simplest idea which often is the best idea. In this case, Eric's drum part elevated the song in terms of the arrangement, and it became a keeper. The song was going to be nixed before we even recorded it.... But it is I think one of my favorites now.  
In terms of the studio and this record, we really wanted a lot of the meat of the songs to be cut live...So the grander more psychedelic songs were all cut live, the main lead guitars couldn't have carried the energy they have as an over dub. Once the basic tracking was done, this record was pretty much Phil and I, as Bill was having the baby and was only able to be there for basic tracks and a couple bass over dubs and vocals harmonies ... Eric would come in to do some percussion and harmonies, but all the records are mostly Phil and I and the person producing or mixing (in this case Mell and Martin Faveyear). Those guys are always welcome to come and go as they please and always have some great analyses when they do sit in, but day jobs and what not usually make it impossible for them to be there for the long haul. We worked many hours on this thing, and it took over a year to complete. So yeah, mostly just us. 

I have to say that I am always impressed by the sound, creativity, and musicianship of you and your band. Can you talk about your working relationship, collaborative nature, and process as a band? How has that grown and developed among the band up to now?
JS: Thank you. Hmmm,  I'll try and do this justice and I think I've answered bits of this question already above.....Well, as most people who are familiar with our music know Phil and I having been a couple had a lot to do with the process and how it "looked". I mean we lived together and we "lived" the music, so it was able to happen completely spontaneously and organically. I think when he moved out I was afraid we would lose some of that, but what ended up happening was I had to actually become more fearless and commit to things that I might have over thought when I had the luxury of taking my time with Phil. We have to now make time to work on music together, you now...And it can feel weird, as it's not the way I thrive generally, nor he. 
So anyway, as I said, it generally starts with me writing a song and bringing it to Phil ...The stuff that ends up being inspiring to us is usually the stuff he gets right out of the gate...Like the counter melody or guitar hook will just happen effortlessly...If it's is a struggle he usually gets frustrated pretty quickly and the song is nixed for the time being, or forever. It has to feel like a Ouija board for us...It just happens and it's hard to know whose pushing and whose following "what". I think as a whole we as a band were inspired by being part of the experience of working with Sunn O))) and Boris....We, I think, just all moved in a similar direction and blossomed at the same time in terms of where we wanted to go creatively. No one in this band is afraid of change, and everyone pushes themselves to move forward-isn't afraid of constructive criticism either. 
Phil's a hard ass, so that's something that people need to understand who play with us. There is no walking on creative egg shells! We also work hard on the sound and make changes to get better sounds out of our instruments. We record on tape, we use mostly vintage gear.....I don’t know....I guess again I need to give Phil so much credit as his guitar and ability to understand melody, counter melodies etc. bring so much to the songs when we record them. Thats when they become fully realized, of course. They evolve into these cathedrals of sound that inspire and challenge me to write songs that have that space, which allows for something musically exciting to happen within. 
To me music is a very fragile eco -system. Systems within systems all working together...I see it in 3-D and I need to feel like it is a world I can be inside of in order to be moved by it. I think we must all feel that way for it to work as it has to some degree. It's almost as if on a metaphysical level we have equal amounts of pressure building internally to match what manifests externally....We seem to all be on the same page. Almost like we are all looking through one of those "View Masters" from the 60's and seeing the same thing. There needs to be depth of field, colors, mountains, sky......I could go on and on....Earthquakes, oil spills, fires, death, forgiveness, romance, lust, longing.....Oh yeah, and love. And loss. 

You and Phil Wandscher handled production for Marble Son. Can you discuss how you and he decided to take that on, and what the experience was like for you?
JS: We didn’t really have a choice in some ways due to time, finance etc., but we also I think felt up for the challenge and after making a couple EPs without a producer (Gentleness EP was recorded by Eric Eagle). We felt we at least knew we could get across the essence of what we were about. We chose to work with Mell Dettmer because she gets great sounds and she was great at wrangling our intense energy (she had also been involved with both EPs). I don’t want to leave her out of the equation, as I feel she was very important in the role of producing as well.....But ultimately it was us in the hot seat...And therein lies the challenge...When you hit a creative/emotional wall it's all on you....I mean it's all on you with or without a producer...But at least when in doubt you can default to someone else. 
Sometimes I’d have to pretend that I wasn't freaking out and could see a positive outcome when things were seemingly falling apart...It's one thing to be emotionally pragmatic on the surface, but it's another to really have to creatively pull a rabbit out of your ass when it seems like you have exhausted all possibilities! Sometimes you don't know what's right, how to get out of a pinch, but you need to convey a sense of confidence and knowingness, calm. I mean there were times Phil was really unsure and bordering on a meltdown, and I could see money flying out the window and felt like we were going to have to call it quits for good. Phil cannot fake it, and I’ve learned to accept that is why he is so damn good! He conjures something that comes at a cost in many ways, an emotional cost is paid for being so raw. But I have an insane ability to be able to "act" pragmatic in those situations......So it somehow balances out. 
But the process can look ugly and be really hard for the people who witness us going through it. We are not your seemingly well-adjusted types! Having a producer is sometimes necessary, and some are visionaries and it would be a no brainer to jump at the chance to work with them.... But I'm not sure I like the idea anymore of giving up that power. I’d rather do it ourselves, take longer to make the record, and even pull the plug rather than fight for control over my creative vision. 
I’d rather take responsibility for the good and the bad, and if I don’t go the extra mile, I can only blame myself at the end of the day. Being in the studio is dynamic and strange and it can get overwhelming that way...And at the end of the day, it’s often about money. It gets very stressful when money dictates the creative finish line, so by us producing it ourselves, at least we can control this, and call the shots of how time and energy is allocated. 
How did producing the record set Marble Son apart from your previous records for you when you listen to it now? What connects them? 
JS: I feel like the other records are the seedlings and this is the beginning of the "real deal".....This is the record I can now began to really move forward with. The others were more tentative, safer. We still have so far to go to completely match our collective vision, but I do feel this is getting us closer to where we need to be.

This has been really great Jesse. Before we draw this to an end, I'd like to quickly ask you:  Now that the record is finished and you will be touring for it, what can fans expect at the live show? How do you feel the new material fits into the set? 
JS: Well, it's more like "How does the old material fit into the set!" It feels great and effortless. It feels like we are weightless. We still play a few older songs, and it's nice to incorporate the full body of work...It seems to all make sense seeing it evolve as a piece. A lot of songs off the last record  in particular (and the EP's) make the most sense in context-as do a few really old ones. 
We also have a new fellow named Trever Hadley playing bass now, as Bill Herzog cannot tour any longer. It's been so long since a core person has left the fold. It's very bitter sweet, as Trever is amazing, and we are SO fortunate to find a guy who can play this super melodic stuff Bill plays, and is also a delight as a person. Bass players like Bill do not grow on tress! Bill is family and it's hard to not share the experience with him. It felt like I'd lost a limb at first, but then again,  we couldn't have gotten luckier. So it is a new era and we are moving forward....I feel good, extremely grateful, and very excited to go on tour. 

Thank you.........

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