Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hiss Golden Messenger Tell Their Tale Of "Poor Moon"

Durham North Carolina-based songwriter MC Taylor, along with multi-instrumentalist and recordist Scott Hirsch, are Hiss Golden Messenger. Their latest record, Poor Moon, which was originally released as a vinyl in 2011, and is now receiving the CD release treatment by the Tompkins Square label. The duo are joined by an impressive list of guests on Poor Moon, including members of D. Charles Speer and The Helix, Black Twig Pickers, Brightblack Morning Light, and The Court and Spark.

To commemorate the CD release of Poor Moon on Tompkins Square, I recently had the opportunity to speak with both MC and Scott regarding the history of Hiss Golden Messenger, the band's discography, and the making of their new record.

Before we dig into the history of Hiss Golden Messenger, can you briefly take us through your own pre-Hiss Golden Messenger musical history?

MC: I got my first guitar when I was around 13, but I didn’t really begin to learn to play until I was 17 or so. I come from a musical family—my grandfather on my mother’s side was a singer, my dad is a guitarist and singer, my brother is a classical musician, and my sister is a great singer. All of them, with the exception of my grandfather, who passed many years ago, appear on Poor Moon.

I grew up in Southern California a generation after the folk revival swept through the region, and some degree of that residual musical earthiness must have still been lingering in our house. We heard a lot of John Stewart’s California Bloodlines, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds. That sort of thing.

When and how did you meet Scott Hirsch? Can you talk about your history together and what inspired you to work together?

MC: We met our first year of college in Santa Barbara. I was drafted into a nascent band that Scott and some other friends were forming. I didn’t know much about playing music at that point—I remember a group of us hunkered down around my guitar trying to figure out how to change its strings, but that didn’t matter. I wasn’t writing my own songs then, I was just learning how to be a member of a musical collaboration. In retrospect, I was definitely the least-important member of that band, but I was so glad to be there. We traveled a lot for a bunch of 18 and 19-year olds, all over the country. We still have friends from those days, it was a very important time.

Following the dissolution of that first band (Ex-Ignota was its name; there are records available), Scott and I both seemed to be interested in working the same musical furrow, so we started work on a variety of projects that, over time, became The Court & Spark (in partnership with our old friend James Kim and, later, Tom Heyman and many others). By the time The C & S started in earnest, we were living in San Francisco, this would have been 1998. I guess we started playing together in 1993 or 1994.

What has been most rewarding, memorable, challenging, and/ or unexpected from your work together?

Scott: For me it has been rewarding, now that we live miles apart, to continue our relationship via the context of music. And to know that when we get together, we just pick up where we last left off. That and it is always incredibly rewarding simply to play music together. If there is no enjoyment in playing music, then it is not worth yours, let alone anybody else's time.

MC: It’s a wonder to me that this partnership has continued for this long; it’s become a very important part of my life, among the most important and valuable relationships that I have, up there with the relationship I have with my family. I consider Scott like a brother. Not many get to enjoy this sort of collaborative relationship, and I try not to take it for granted.

Can you describe your writing and recording process together? How collaborative is your work together?

Scott: Mike will workshop songs for endless hours on his (now famous) tape recorder. Last time I was in Durham, he told me he now has an office space to do this, which I thought is funny, like he goes to work in a suit and sits down at the tape recorder or something. But I have a lot of respect for the time and effort that goes into this part of the process. When he thinks it is up to snuff, I usually get sent a demo, which I like to listen to a lot and ponder for a while before writing any actual parts on an instrument.

I play bass in this band live, but sometimes I'll write a lap-steel, guitar or keyboard part in my head. Or, in an even broader sense, I'll just think about how the song could be recorded so it can what it wants to be. It is all in the service of the song, meaning: where does it want to go? Sometimes I don't know and Mike does, or sometimes it changes.

At some point we'll get together and record official versions. The fun stuff happens usually late at night after the basic tracks are captured and we really feel like we got the soul of the song to tape. This part is collaborative as we are bouncing ideas and parts of one another and realizing that no matter what we do, if there is a strong backbone there, it will work. Lately we have been challenging ourselves to do as little as possible in this stage.

Then I get to go fixate alone on the sounds for hours (which I enjoy) until we both agree that the final mix has been struck.  On the rare instrumental that I write, I usually try to get Mike to play something, or in the case of "Dreamwood", he sent me a magical recording of owls he made that inspired a little guitar thing on my end.

What would you say distinguishes each of you from each other? Where do you both meet philosophically, musically, and artistically?

I think we meet in the middle a lot, regarding a lot of our favorite books, records, films, and art and why they mean so much to us. But we definitely have our differences too in terms of what we naturally gravitate too. It is funny, we have been making music together so long that I have noticed we predict each other's moves. For instance, Mike will play a distinctly Scott riff and I will play a line that Mike would make up. It is probably confusing to some people who try to figure out who is playing what.

But that phenomenon extends to our process as well, where I will come into a song Mike is working on with an idea of a larger picture of how it wants to sound, while he focuses on the details, verses, lyrics and such. But then that role will flip completely when I start focusing on the mic placement and the recording details, and then Mike picks up the slack by holding the global view of a song together. We are complementary in that respect.

For new listeners who may not be familiar with Hiss Golden Messenger, could you briefly take us through your discography?

It started with the songs of Country Hai East Cotton. There was a recording session at the legendary Different Fur Trading Company studio in the Mission District of San Francisco. The room where Herbie Hancock cut Sextant and parts of Headhunters. That record took a little while to make, but it was our farewell record to San Francisco. We did play that record live a bunch at the time with a drummer, percussionist, B3 Organ, Rhodes Piano, horns, electric guitars. Basically we got everyone we knew to get up on stage with us, and it sounded righteous. 

Country Hai East Cotton would see a proper self-release in 2009 after I was in New York and Mike in North Carolina. But one of the vibiest versions of that band was captured live at Big Sur on April 22, 2007 and is a now hard to find handmade CD self-release, though available to stream.

In 2008 we started working with a new drummer, the great Terry Lonergan, and began recording live material and new studio material, some of which is a concept sci-fi/death record that has never seen the light of day, but it will in some form.

The next official release was the live band of that period around 2010 was captured mostly live on the radio in New York City, called Root Work. The opus known as Bad Debt follows that in 2011, having been written and recorded in the cold winter of 2010.

Work on Poor Moon began in the Spring of 2011 and got released in November of the same year as vinyl-only, but has been released as CD in April, 2012 on Tompkins Square. There are many other b-sides and various things that are too many to mention here.

How and when did you begin working on Poor Moon?

MC: We recorded the basic tracks for Poor Moon in April of 2011 in about four days in NY, and probably spent another couple days adding overdubbed parts in CA, NC, and NY. Scott mixed the record in about five days. There was a while, like a month or two maybe, when it was unclear when and how the record would come out. The label that I had been working with closed, for all intents and purposes, so we were left with this finished record and nothing to do with it, and it nearly bankrupted me in the process.

But then our friends at Paradise of Bachelors expressed interest in doing a vinyl version and it rolled on from there. It’s interesting to witness its life since that time (which wasn’t that long ago). It makes me wonder about all the great records that go unheard for one reason or another.

What were you influenced most by during the writing process?

That's hard to pinpoint. Just living, I suppose, with all the joy and junk that is part and parcel of life.  


MC: Again, hard to say. I’m hesitant to shed too much light on the process. I am interested in Wendell Berry and parts of the New Testament.

Can you discuss your process of writing both arrangements and lyrics? Do these feed/ influence each other, or are they separate?

MC: I think the best songs arrive at the same time. The lyrics and arrangement show up together. There is always some degree of reorganization as we record to account for ideas of instrumentation, but usually nothing too major.

Did you set a course for the direction for the record? Or was it more of an intuitive, natural kind of song-by-song kind of process?

Scott: It seems to me by now that each record is a reflection on what we are doing in our lives at that stage. The real trick is knowing that is happening and successfully distilling it in the form of a recording.

I agree with Scott. Sometimes you just have to record the song and see if it works. Sometimes something that doesn’t seem like it should work on paper will, and the reverse is also true. I didn’t think the song “Blue Country Mystic” would be one that would end up on the record, and I was ready to throw it out before we started Poor Moon. I was sort of thinking of it as a filler track, something we would record only if we were really hard-up for material. But Scott’s parts really helped it, and as it turns out, people really seem to like the song. So what do I know?

What was the role of the studio for you this time around? Did the recording process itself alter, change, evolve, or simplify any of the tunes as you went along?

We always mix it up, recording-wise, and where and how we record a record. I fully believe it is healthy to do so. I learned that from Daniel Lanois, though his version is more out of choice, and ours is more circumstance.

Either way, we have recently had access to real southern gem of a house to record at in Oxford, North Carolina, but just today Mike sent me something he recorded outside with birds and everything.  Poor Moon was recorded mostly in a building steps from the East River under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn.

MC: I know Scott has a different take on this because he’s the one that ultimately has to form a cohesive record out of various messy and disorganized sessions, many of which are riddled with ambient noise and wrong notes and all. Sometimes that stuff ends up in there, but Scott makes it listenable. I’m not a huge help these days in the post-production process. I don’t like the mixing or mastering stage of a record, and I don’t ever attend those sessions anymore. My presence would be a hindrance, I believe.

My most intense work happens on the front-end of an album, and by the time we’re near the finish line, I’m pretty wrung out. I’m lucky that Scott and I complement each other in this respect. I think he likes mixing. It drives me crazy. At this point in time, I take a sort of documentary approach to recording, just do it and fidelity be damned.

Sometimes I record on a tape recorder, sometimes I’ll multi-track something at home, but I usually try not to do more than a couple takes of a part because then the magic starts to wear off. The beautiful thing about music is that a good song can withstand any amount of distress. I care about the performance conveying the spirit of the song, that’s all that matters to me, really.

You and Scott are joined by a number of collaborators on this record: Terry Lonergan, Nathan Bowles (Black Twig Pickers, Pelt), Hans Chew (D. Charles Speer & the Helix), Matt Cunitz (Brightblack Morning Light), Tom Heyman (The Court & Spark), visual artist Alex Jako and others.

Can you describe the collaborative nature of working with such a great group of musicians? Can you provide some examples of how their contributions enhanced some of the tunes?

Scott: I would say that we do sometimes envision who might complement a song before it is recorded. At this point we have met such a favorite cast of characters to share music with along our journey that we do often have certain people in mind for parts that would jive well with the songs. In addition to those you mentioned, there are still more worth mentioning. Horn players Carroll Ashby, Crowmeat Bob, guitarist Yair Evnine, singer Tim Bluhm, drummers John Hofer, Chris Sipe, and Terry Lonergan, fiddler Joseph Decosimo.

Can you discuss the album artwork?

MC: The imagery was drawn by my friend Alex Jako, who lives in Todmorden, England. She did an incredible job, I think. It was all laid out by our friend Brendan Greaves. I wanted to evoke a feel similar to some of the Nonesuch Explorer LP covers.

How did you hook up with Tompkins Square for the record?

I started communicating with Josh Rosenthal pretty much out of the blue after the vinyl edition of Poor Moon came out. I suspect he was tipped off about us by either Nathan Salsburg or William Tyler, both friends of ours (and incredible musicians in their own right). He has been very supportive and easy to talk to. But it’s funny, after the initial rocky beginning of the release of Poor Moon, I never sent it to any labels or anything like that. I just found its way to him. 

Will you be touring for the record?

I will be doing a solo tour with songwriter Michael Chapman in the UK at the end of April and early May, along with some gigs at the Kilkenny Roots Festival. I would like to have the whole band come along, but we have to be realistic about what we can afford to do. We’re working at a time when, more and more, musicians are expected to work for very little, if anything.

Performing in front of people doesn’t hold the incentive for me that it once did, although I always do feel fortunate to play for an attentive audience. Generally, though, I’m only playing shows to make enough money to make a new record. I’m not crazy about touring. I’d rather be at home.

What is next for you in 2012?

MC: We’re working on a new record now, hoping to have it finished by mid-summer, which seems reasonable.

What have you been listening to lately?

Scott: Elephant Micah's Louder Than Now, Colin Hare's March Hare, The Impressions, Harold Budd's Serpent in Quicksilver, Waylon Jennings Dreaming My Dreams, the Bats' Daddy's Highway, Daniel Rossen's Silen Hour/Golden Mile.

 E.C. Ball.

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