Normal History Vol. 456: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 33-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Due out in 2018, a live version of “Armchairs Fit Through Doorways” from a show in Montreal in 1996.

“Armchairs Fit Through Doorways” from Jarred Up (K, 1993) (download):

Barrett Martin: World Party

Former grunge drummer Barrett Martin’s new book explores the power of music

Throughout The Singing Earth (Sunyata Books), Barrett Martin writes about life-changing moments. Ironically, everything that’s made his first book possible spawned from that moment when, at an early age, he sat behind an old drum kit his father scored from a local garage sale. Martin might be most familiar as the ex-drummer of Skin Yard, the Screaming Trees and grunge-rock supergroup Mad Season (as well as a session musician for the likes of R.E.M., Queens Of The Stone Age, Air, Luna and Stone Temple Pilots), but the Washington state native has also performed and worked behind the desk on countless other records spanning from rock and jazz to blues and world music. The Singing Earth clocks in at just more than 200 pages. It’s a quick read that wears many hats: tour diary, historical treatise, travelogue, environmental cautionary tale, autobiography, ethnomusicology essay, myth-and-folklore teaching tool and anti-colonial screed that extols the virtues of spirituality and straight-edge. Ultimately, it’s about the power of music—about the art form’s healing properties, how community and culture rally around formed sound, and its revolutionary possibilities, both cultural and political. As he writes, “It has shown me the power of music as a force for social justice and change.”

After the original grunge scene went belly-up in the wake of drug addiction, suicides, overdoses and the strain of having an industry on the back of Seattle and its creative 20-somethings, Martin discovered other musical genres. His innate, never-ending quest to expand his experience and knowledge base took him to six continents on which he cohabitated with locals and indigenous peoples, learning about their culture, history, myths, fables, food and, above all, their music.

“I started working on the book about seven years ago, right around the time I accepted a professorship at Antioch University Seattle,” he says about the book’s genesis. “I was doing a great deal of research in preparation, and that research, combined with the work I had already done in graduate school, blended with my personal travel stories to become the stories in the book. The hardest part was figuring out how to condense so much information. I mean, my graduate research paper on shamanic music in the Peruvian Amazon was more than 100 pages itself, so I had to condense all that down to 20 pages for the chapter on the Amazon. But music is so infinite and expansive that you can really only focus on the basic concepts. My hope is that the readers will take a gigantic plunge into whichever musical form grabs their interest and go deeper on their own.”

Martin’s writing is generally concise, which works well for historical and folkloric summations, though his prose tends toward the flowery when discussing riling topics like unfettered capitalism, environmental destruction and U.S. foreign policy. Additionally, the book is accompanied by a 27-track soundtrack that includes excerpts of Martin’s broad palette of work, everything from material by his first band (Thin Men), Screaming Trees and Amazon-rainforest recordings to his work with Cuban ensembles, Delta bluesman CeDell Davis and his own solo jazz band.

“Whenever I do research, I learn so much more than I thought I already knew,” he says about his revelations in becoming an author. “It’s part of what I love about being a musician—it makes me a perpetual student. But I suppose the biggest lesson is that culture is only as strong as the music behind it. As soon as the music fades or becomes weak or mediocre, then the culture usually starts to disintegrate; cultures with powerful music seem to thrive even under difficult, adverse conditions. It’s funny because I started as a musician who earned a living playing rock ’n’ roll, but the more I studied music around the world, I found that the most powerful music is not performed for money. It is performed for ceremony and dance, and for the joy of the people.”

Kevin Stewart-Panko

Hiss Golden Messenger: Spiritualized

Hiss Golden Messenger mines faith’s silver lining on Hallelujah Anyhow

M.C. Taylor, otherwise known as Hiss Golden Messenger, insists that his relationship to faith has been a consistent theme on his records. “It’s music about faith, but it’s not devotional music,” says Taylor. “Frankly, I’m surprised that sort of thing doesn’t exist more, because I think a lot about it, and I’m certainly not a genius by any stretch of the imagination.”

He’s also not a church-going Christian. “I think modern Christianity is used far more as a weapon than as an embrace,” says Taylor. “But at the same time, we have to be able to be talk about things that are deeper than what appears on a page.”

Along those lines, the new Hallelujah Anyhow (Merge) might be best described as pastoral, its folksy spirituality, roots-rock familiarity and live-to-tape feel as weathered and comfortable as a threadbare love seat on a screened-in porch. It’s also the most cohesive entry in HGM’s seven-album catalog—and that’s mostly by way of execution.

“With this album, you’re definitely hearing the sound of five very particular personalities in a room together playing, with the mics wide open,” says Taylor. “Most of the album was recorded live, so I was leaning pretty heavily on each member. The way we made the record was pretty old-school.”

With his family firmly rooted in Durham, N.C., for 10 years now, Taylor has fully embraced his Southernness. “My two kids were born here, and I’ve always been a student of the culture,” he says. “I felt like if I wanted to understand it in a deeper way, I needed to live here.”

A native of Irvine, Calif., Taylor was nudged in a musical direction by his father, a former member of the Settlers, an outfit affiliated with John Denver. He first collaborated with longtime partner Scott Hirsch in a hardcore punk band, then shifted to a more classic folk/rock sound as he began writing his own songs. In his late teens, Taylor headed north to San Francisco, where he fronted critically acclaimed country-ish indie quartet the Court & Spark, which reached its idiosyncratic zenith with 2004’s Witch Season. “We weren’t all that successful—but we tried,” says Taylor.

Not long after the Court & Spark’s final release, 2006’s Hearts, Taylor relocated to Durham to pursue a master’s in folklore at UNC. He parlayed that degree into a several-year gig as a folklorist for the state of North Carolina. “My wife and I needed change,” Taylor says of his move to the South. “We were in San Francisco, and we were making a lot of lateral moves, but there didn’t seem to be any way for us to accomplish the things we wanted to—like having kids and buying a house—without making pretty drastic, cosmic changes to our lives. When I moved here, I didn’t know what I was going to find. I don’t even think I knew what I was looking for.”

Once settled in Durham, Taylor began to record with Hirsch as Hiss Golden Messenger while performing solo acoustic shows. A proper debut, Bad Debt, came along in 2010. After two subsequent albums saw limited release, Merge signed the band, releasing 2014’s The Lateness Of Dancers and Hallelujah Anyhow’s predecessor, 2016’s Heart Like A Levee, the latter recorded by Taylor and new Carolina cohort Bradley Cook with a close-knit group of collaborators that included Cook’s brother, Phil, and vocalists Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig.

The collective has tightened even more on Hallelujah Anyhow, the band dynamic of the HGM experience sounding more unified than ever. Much of that is a byproduct of hopping off the road and right into the recording studio. “The last record came out in October of 2016, and this one is out less than a year later,” says Taylor. “I had the songs and the head of steam to do it. I was trying to avoid that period of sitting around and waiting—I don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s very productive. The longer you stand in that in-between space, the more you hope and think that the room you step into is going to be the greatest room you ever entered. And that’s never the case.”

—Hobart Rowland

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Continental Drifts

Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett and Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile team for a gem of a record

Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile admits he’s a fanboy—he loves bands, musicians, albums, songs. But what he can do that most of us can’t is translate his fandom into participation. He ended up on the recent album from Tuareg band Tinariwen by sending word that he’d love to join them when they were recording in Joshua Tree. (“That was extra fanboy, reaching out to make that happen,” he says.) And he wrote a song that he hoped he could sing with Courtney Barnett after becoming obsessed with “Depreston,” from 2016’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. (That album title wouldn’t be out of place in Vile’s Zen-like lyrics.)

“Courtney? Sure, I’m a fanboy,” says Vile, although the two were just acquaintances when he wrote “Over Everything” with her in mind. That song, which Vile calls “a romantic, more slacker version in a different genre of a country-duet sort of thing,” led eventually to Lotta Sea Lice (Matador), the collaboration between the two acclaimed singer/songwriter/guitarists.

Lotta Sea Lice is, in a fashion, the history of a friendship. The pair met in 2014 when Barnett opened for Vile in her native Melbourne. Barnett was a fan going back to Vile’s 2011 album Smoke Rings For My Halo. “Peeping Tom” was her gateway, and she covers it in a stirring solo version on Lotta Sea Lice. “It was one of the first songs that I really connected with years ago when I discovered Kurt through that album,” she says. “That song really stood out; I just listened to it on repeat. It’s always been a special song. I thought it would be a cool idea to do a version of each other’s songs, and that was the first one that came to mind.”

When they first met in Melbourne, Barnett gave Vile a copy of her then-new The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas. The song that caught his ear was “Out Of The Woodwork,” and he covers it on Lotta Sea Lice with Barnett’s help.

Vile was hesitant to present “Over Everything” to Barnett because he had written the song for her unsolicited. Barnett remembers that when he first played it for her, “We didn’t know each other that well yet, so it was a little bit strange and nerve-wracking. He played it for me, half looking down, and I think he was still working on some lyrics and arrangements and stuff. I could tell that I really liked it already. I’ve always loved Kurt’s songs because sometimes they really grow on you, but they take awhile—that song kept getting stuck in my head, but it doesn’t really have a traditional chorus or a refrain or anything. It doesn’t seem like it should be a catchy song, but it really is. I find that a bit mesmerizing that he can do that all the time, write these long, kind of jammy songs that seem to be a bit free-form, but then they have these really intricate little melodies to perk you up.”

Inspired in part by country duets such as George Jones & Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner, “Over Everything” finds the two singing back and forth to one another, trading verses about songwriting and hearing loss. (The hilarious video has the two lip-syncing each other’s parts from their opposing sides of the globe.) They also trade guitar lines, increasingly so as the song extends into a coda. It reveals their common ground in conversational, clever lyrical details (Barnett sounds so natural singing Vile’s lines that you might think she wrote her verses) and in vivid, loping guitar playing (it’s often hard to tell who’s playing which lines).

The original idea was to record a shared single, but the two had so much fun that they kept recording, piecemeal, in various places over the course of 14 months, until they ended up with an album. During the sessions, Vile drafted old friends (Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and Rob Laakso of his band the Violators) and new ones he’d made while touring Australia: the Dirty Three’s Jim White and Mick Turner, and the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey. “Firstly, I’m like a superfan,” Vile says of the latter three. “It’s definitely an honor to play with a slightly earlier generation. I strive to be in a similar vein: raw, artful, all those weird types, like Nick Cave and the Dirty Three. They’re kind of epic, but they’re also pretty raw.”

Barnett and Vile deliberately kept the recording quick, with few overdubs, which isn’t the way the two usually work on their own. “It’s always a constant struggle, to get to a place like Neil Young or certain country records where it’s all done in a couple takes and it’s all there,” says Vile. “That’s one style of music that I really admire and want to get back to, kind of real and organic.”

“I think it was a good lesson,” says Barnett. “I’m a real over-thinker and kind of a perfectionist. We didn’t really have much time; we were just trying something and just doing it and making it and moving on. Not in a not-caring way, but in a not-caring-so-much way about everything that could be wrong. A big part of it was trusting in the music and what’s written, and (also) trusting your instincts a little bit.”

In addition to the two covers of each other, the tracklist includes five new songs, three from Vile and two from Barnett, inspired by their conversations and emails; plus two other covers: “Untogether” by Belly, which Vile remembered loving as a young teenager (but which Barnett didn’t know), and “Fear Is Like A Forest” from Barnett’s partner Jen Cloher, who’ll be the opener when Barnett and Vile tour with the band they’re calling the Sea Lice.

“We were acquaintances and mutual admirers, but I’d say we’re great friends now,” says Vile. “Making the record was so fun, but then hearing it back and realizing how good the album is, is the ultimate for me. I’m pretty paranoid in general, or even afraid to listen to the music, but once you hear how good it really is, the returns are great.”

—Steve Klinge

Zola Jesus: Into The Wild

A move back to rural Wisconsin from Seattle has brought renewed faith to Zola Jesus

Contrary to author Thomas Wolfe’s theory that you can’t go home again, Nika Roza Danilova—who records and performs as symphonic artist Zola Jesus—not only returned last year to the forested, 200-acre estate where she grew up in Merrill, Wisc., she and her husband constructed a 36-by-36-foot house there that became a rustic retreat from bustling Seattle society. It’s where she pondered imposing existential issues, like friends battling terminal cancer and others attempting suicide, and funneled her conclusions into her most elegiac, cathedral-reverent work to date, Okovi, which is Slavic for “shackles.”

“I think Thoreau figured it out, but it’s so easy to forget the importance of nature and the importance of solitude within nature,” she says. “So I was just focusing on the transcendental nature of music, and it awakened me in a really special way.”

The singer’s childhood study of opera left her with an anxiety disorder that persists to this day. She always felt that vocal perfection was unattainable, and the feeling has worsened over the past two years. Disappearing into the womb-like woods was her only recourse. “I wanted to create a space that was truly the outside of my inside, a place that felt sacred in some way,” she says of her Walden-remote abode. “I couldn’t just buy someone else’s sacred space—I had to build my own. Being in the forest is the most natural feeling for me because that’s how I was raised—feeling like I’m a part of the ecosystem.”

Her daily routine begins with coffee, and can include chopping wood, sitting on the front porch with her cat Kosha and trying to identify exotic bird calls or long nature walks, where she often stumbles across wild turkeys, which are as surprised by her presence as she is theirs. “I got really into archery, too, so I’ve been shooting a bow,” she says.

Okovi (Sacred Bones) is as lush and verdant as those surroundings. It opens with “Doma,” with vocals wafting in gentle, snowy layers, then gets practically monastic on the synth-jagged “Exhumed,” a catacomb-echoed “Ash To Bone,” the buzzsawing “Remains,” a cascading instrumental called “Half Life” and the stomping, radiator-hissing “Siphon,” a study of the often inexplicable motivations for suicide. Some of the material was fueled by her own insecurity. Starting with 2009’s The Spoils, she’d released five gorgeous albums that she was beginning to think had fallen on deaf ears.

“I felt like my music wasn’t impacting anyone, and I wasn’t really confident that what I was doing was actually important,” she says. “So I was struggling against the meaninglessness of life and coming to terms with the fact that maybe life has no purpose.”

Now, in her quiescent cabin, this happy hermit is no longer contemplating the big picture, the immensity of being alive. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed, so I’ve been focusing on the tiniest moments of life—like seeing what new plants are growing—and just holding on to those and seeing their beauty,” she says. “Living in the countryside just feeds me.”

Tom Lanham

The Dream Syndicate: Sleep No More

Paisley Underground legends the Dream Syndicate release their first album in three decades

Given that the first Dream Syndicate album in 30 years is called How Did I Find Myself Here?, it’s low-hanging fruit to turn the title into a question for Steve Wynn, who started the band in L.A. when he was 21.

“I like the title used as a prompt,” says Wynn. “It’s a pretty relevant title. I’ve already seen it being used and co-opted and played with and bent and twisted, and that makes me happy. Besides the fact that it obviously connects back to the record and what we’re doing, it seems like it fits a lot of people’s lives right now, micro and macro.”

Five years ago, Wynn offered to bring a band to a festival in Spain, and because neither of his current groups, the Miracle 3 and the Baseball Project (a supergroup of sorts with members of R.E.M.), would be available, on a whim he offered the Dream Syndicate, an outfit that hadn’t existed for 23 years.

His bluff called, he had to assemble a lineup. Part of the problem was that during its original eight-year tenure, the Dream Syndicate never had a stable membership. Bassist/vocalist Kendra Smith left after 1982’s The Days Of Wine And Roses, the band’s classic debut, and guitarist Karl Precoda left after 1984’s Medicine Show.

But Wynn called on original drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton, who joined the group after Medicine Show, and drafted his Miracle 3 guitar foil Jason Victor (“I knew that neither Paul Cutler nor Karl Precoda would be into it, for various reasons,” says Wynn), and the new Dream Syndicate was born. That lineup has now been together longer than any other in the band’s storied history, and after five years of intermittent reunion tours, the quartet is releasing How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-), the fifth Dream Syndicate album.

“We figured the next step was to make a record,” says Wynn. “We would go in, finance it ourselves, not make a big deal about it, and if it’s no good, nobody would ever hear it. And like with the shows and tours we did before, it was good, it was exciting, it was true to the history, but it was new—all those things that we were enjoying came through in the studio. And that’s how we find ourselves here.”

The album is indeed good. It’s got compact rock songs such as “Glide,” noisy, punk-rock wall-of-sound such as “The Circle” and epic jams such as the 11-minute title track. Each has roots in what made the Dream Syndicate a leading light in the Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene during the ’80s.

“When the Dream Syndicate started, what we liked most of all was just stretching out, eliminating time and economy from what we were doing,” says Wynn. “When we had our first rehearsals, we would play ‘Susie Q’ for an hour and just think that was the most fun thing in the world. When we played shows, sure we had the pop songs, we had the ‘Tell Me When It’s Over’ kind of songs and ‘That’s What You Always Say,’ but then we’d go out on a limb. That’s when we had the most fun. Some of the people who’d come to see us would say they couldn’t deal with that, but the people who loved us really loved the long jams. It kind of stayed that way over the years. In some ways, it’s what we did best. It’s when we’d get out there and play a song over 10 minutes, like ‘Halloween’ or ‘John Coltrane Stereo Blues,’ that the band really came alive.”

With the help of Sonic Youth/Hold Steady producer John Agnello and Green On Red keyboardist Chris Cacavas, the band recorded 20 songs in a quick five days and chose eight for the album.

“If it slithers around and grooves around and makes you forget about space and time, then that gets on the record,” says Wynn. “I think of the eight songs on the record, two of them are one-chord songs, which I’d never done before, and then ‘How Did I Find Myself Here?’ is a whole lot of one chord. It was something I’d forgotten about: You can do something that grooves and feel good, and you don’t need anything else.”

Wynn will still juggle his myriad other projects, but for now, the Dream Syndicate is burning brightest. “You wait 30 years to make a record with a band, you want to give it everything you have, so that’s going to be my focus for a little while,” says Wynn. “But everything’s active. In a way, everything I’ve ever done—I did a Danny & Dusty record not long ago; we did a Gutterball show two years ago. My solo band is active. I’ve been working on a record with the leader of Serena-Maneesh, the Norwegian band, that’s really cool. There’s a lot of stuff out there. That’s what I like about doing this right now as opposed to 30 years ago: You can do a lot of different projects and they can exist side by side, and people can find the ones they want to find and ignore the ones they want to ignore. You can just work and be productive. It’s great.”

Steve Klinge

John Giorno: Poetic Justice

Multimedia legend John Giorno celebrates his 80th birthday with New York City-wide retrospective

To say John Giorno is a gentleman, and a much-adored one at that, is an understatement of mammoth proportions. What other painter, poet or performance artist has had an entire town—New York City, yet—show its appreciation with a season-long celebration in galleries, museums and performance venues? What other recording artist, at 80, is digging into his crates for a lost-tapes, band-archival album like the newly released I’m Rock Hard?

“It’s all very wonderful and, yes, a little strange as I never felt accepted,” says Giorno in his familiar raspy voice. “I’m an artist who’s a poet and vice versa, and no institution ever got me. I’ve been performing for over 50 years, to say nothing of the LPs and videos I was releasing. In the passing of years, I’ve made many fans, but it was never institutional.”

The creation of the phone-answering-machine-based Dial-A-Poem and Giorno Poetry Systems—the latter a label whose albums featured the earliest works of Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch and Giorno himself, with a greater focus on Beat Generation lions-in-winter Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs—all came from being in the Pop Art world of the early ’60s in NYC, where Warhol was a mentor and a paramour. “We all did our thing, but, it was very communal then,” says Giorno. “If you had a great idea, usually you could make it happen.”

Making sound compositions from his poems—inspired by collaborators such as synth avatar Bob Moog and conceptual collage artist Brion Gysin—found Giorno focused on a new style of performance poetry: rhythmic, repetitive, cut-up and done in a lofty cadence and chant-like manner whose vision was in league with his own spiritual/Buddhist path. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I first did it,” he says. “I had rubber-band legs and weak knees, forced the air out, and did it. It’s heat, breath and panic.”’

Giorno wanted to upgrade poetry as a multimedia performance rather than see poems simply die on the vine of print. He put it on the phone, 24 albums and a handful of videos, featuring his friends or his own voice.

As he was untrained as an actor or musician, Giorno’s performance poetry simply came from the heart, his wild energies and Tibetan Buddhism’s fierce goddess of passion, Tummo. “It’s about using the breath inside your central channels,” he says. “It works on a downward scale, their flow. When I write a poem, I’m rehearsing it vocally as I’m writing it. The musical qualities come out more, and I rehearse it every day. It’s a long process, like an annotated musical score.”

When punk appeared in 1975—from Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye’s first gleanings to Thurston Moore and the early no-wave players—its practitioners took a shine to Giorno, the performer and label owner they had known from poetry circles. “It was a very small scene,” he says. “And what impressed them was that much of my performance poetry had as much energy—if not more—than their music. I really thought I should start a band.”

So he did—first with Ned Sublette, Pat Irwin and David Van Tieghem, then a second band with Lenny Kaye and C.P. Roth. “But I did it as a poet, not like someone who wrote pop songs,” he says, recalling 24-track studio sessions and events at Danceteria, CBGB and the Mudd Club. The members all followed each other, rather than Giorno following his bandmates; today, the poet laughs about how the music jumped from punk to industrial to noise. “I got sucked up into their energy,” he says. “My solos were like their solos: loud.”

As heard on the just-discovered tapes of I’m Rock Hard—nine songs recorded between 1982 and 1989 and released by The Vinyl Factory/Red Bull Arts New York on two vinyl albums—Giorno is a whirling dervish on tracks such as “It’s A Mistake To Think You’re Special” and “I Gambled With My Anger And Lost.” Discovered by Ugo Rondinone (his husband and the man behind this year’s I ♥ John Giorno exhibition in NYC), the material is a revelation to both men. “Ugo didn’t know about the rock songs or how big and hard they sound,” says Giorno. “I was so happy that he stumbled onto them. I forgot how rough they were.”

And for fans of Giorno Poetry Systems’ albums, the poet may have one giant plan for his wealth of releases. “I found cartons of all of the albums, CDs and videos, still in shrink wrap, and might just turn them into an art object,” he says. “It’s something I always wanted to do—yet another thing for the future.”

A.D. Amorosi

Dälek: No Boundaries

With Endangered Philosophies, Dälek continues to blur genre lines

Since their band’s 1998 inception, the experimental hip-hop outsiders in Dälek (pronounced “die-a-leck”) have been compared to the disparate likes of My Bloody Valentine, Faust, Public Enemy and Afrika Bambaataa. This is mostly due to the gravelly, baritone rhymes of MC Dälek (née Will Brooks), with slow-motion beats and soundscapes indebted to industrial noise, shoegaze and krautrock. However, much of the lead-up to eighth album Endangered Philosophies hyped the Newark, N.J., trio’s “coming home” to Ipecac Records following a four-year hiatus during which Brooks focused on his iconAclass project and last year’s release of Dälek’s Asphalt For Eden on extreme-metal label Profound Lore.

“There’s no doubt, man—Ipecac is family,” says Brooks. “There’s really no leaving Ipecac, and we always planned on doing more records with them. You know, doing a record with another label was more of a scheduling thing. They couldn’t put Asphalt out when we wanted. After we released ‘Molten’ as a digital single, I got a call from (Ipecac co-owner Mike) Patton saying he wanted to release the next one, and we were like, ‘Yeah, no doubt.’ It was as simple as that.”

Endangered Philosophies is also notable for being an album loaded with guest appearances that aren’t exactly guest appearances. “We’ve been lucky enough to meet some unbelievable musicians who’ve talked about wanting to collaborate or do something on our records, but we’re not really that kind of group,” says Brooks. “I wouldn’t want a guitar solo on one of our songs, you know what I mean?”

Instead, Dälek had other musicians supply an assortment of recordings—METZ and Publicist UK sent guitar parts, Dave Witte (Municipal Waste) sent drum parts, Chris Cole (Third Eye Foundation, Movietone) sent cello parts—and used them only as source material. In the same way the trio sampled other records in the past, Brooks and Co. mangled, arranged and used what the others provided in whatever way they saw fit. “When we played it back to some of the people involved, they had no idea what was used where,” says Brooks. “‘Echoes Of…’ has guitar from METZ; we played it for them and they were, ‘All right, we’ll take your word for it.’ I’ve always been from the school of taking recognizable stuff and making it unrecognizable. I think that was out of my ignorance when I first started. I didn’t have an advanced musical vocabulary and didn’t know where a lot of classic hip-hop samples were coming from. I thought the way you made hip hop was to take little pieces and make them your own thing. I didn’t know people were using whole parts of other songs.”

But that initial ignorance has served Brooks well. In addition to Dälek (which also includes producer Mike Manteca and turntablist DJ rEk) and iconAclass, he’s also become a sought-after engineer and producer with credits including Zombi, Jett Brando and the Black Heart Procession. For now, however, the focus is Endangered Philosophies, performing live and the continued uprooting of musical boundaries.

“The philosophy of Dälek from the beginning is that each record takes our core sound, pushes it further and makes it brand new,” says Brooks. “When we start any project, we have that idea in mind. I understand that my music isn’t for everyone and that it’s a niche style. Our sound is for certain people and our job is to find those people and introduce them to our sound. At this point, it’s almost like we’ve created our own genre. I’m cool with that.”

Kevin Stewart-Panko

Jonah Parzen-Johnson: The Seeker

Jonah Parzen-Johnson asks questions, listens to the answers

Jonah Parzen-Johnson doesn’t look like a storyteller when he steps onstage. With a baritone saxophone at his mouth and a rack of pedals at his feet, you might wonder how he’ll split the difference between jazz and noise. But the tunes he blows have a strong narrative quality. They drink as deeply from the well of Appalachian folk music as they do from the reservoir of transcendent free jazz exemplified by Albert Ayler and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.

“I think of the saxophone as stepping forward and being the singer of the project,” he says from his home in Brooklyn. The analog synthesizer tones that bubble up around his melodies recall a time when electronic sounds signaled the promise of a better future. And they’re all made in real time. “Nothing is prerecorded,” he assures. “It’s all analog sound, and it’s all being generated on the spot.”

When Parzen-Johnson stops playing, he starts talking about listening and understanding. At a recent Chicago gig celebrating the release of his third album, I Try To Remember Where I Come From (Clean Feed), he spoke about an epiphany that complicated his love for Neil Young.

“He calls the country out about what America does wrong,” he says. “Sometimes you have to say directly what’s going on.” But after Parzen-Johnson noticed that Young’s recent songs didn’t change a lot of minds, he realized, “Maybe it’s about only asking questions.”

So that’s what Parzen-Johnson does when he takes his one-man show on the road; on- and offstage, he asks questions and listens to what people say. “I feel like getting out in the country and trying to listen is good practice for me,” he says. “Because I think it’s never really a good idea to tell other people what they think.”

Bill Meyer

Cold Specks: Darkness & Light

Cold Specks quietly meditates on a disintegrating universe

Ladan Hussein, the woman who records and performs as Cold Specks, is quietly intense. On Fool’s Paradise (Arts & Crafts), her third album, Hussein’s music is stripped down to the essentials. Soft, mournful synthesizers drift through a melancholy space, with elusive percussion accents in the background. Her hushed, jazz-inflected vocals are full of passionate yearning, the sound of a soul on the verge of tears or explosive anger.

“This is a deeply personal album,” says the Toronto-based Hussein. “It deals with a variety of topics from self-love, identity and diaspora dreaming during the apocalypse. I wrote most of the record in a period where I was feeling as though I needed to detach from the world, for the sake of my own sanity. The album is a brutally honest document of it all. The songs are all autobiographical—the anguish of the diaspora, migration, the struggle of refugees, racism, heartbreak and death. It’s all in there. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of darkness around, but I’d like to think I found some light, that I brought some beauty from the ashes.”

Hussein’s parents were born in Somalia. They moved to Canada before she was born. When she left home for university, they thought she was studying to become a lawyer but, growing up, she discovered jazz, pop, R&B and Canadian folk music. She dropped out of college to play guitar, write songs and make demos. When a friend passed a tape to a producer, Hussein’s impressive singing and songwriting won her a recording contract. She moved to London to record her subtle debut, 2012’s I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, an exploration of depression and anxiety that earned rave reviews and a Juno (Canadian Grammy) nomination for breakthrough artist of the year.

While second album Neuroplasticity was louder and more abrasive, Fool’s Paradise returns to the sound some critics have dubbed “gothic doom gospel,” a term Hussein doesn’t relate to. “Those words have nothing to do with anything I do,” she says. “I’m black with a raspy voice, but I’m a Muslim girl from Toronto. I know nothing about gospel.”

The album was put together slowly, with Hussein and Jim Anderson, her producer, paying close attention to tone and nuance.

“I wanted to keep the sonic elements stripped back to the absolute core essentials, then wrap my voice around it all,” she says. “I began demoing the songs this way. The original plan was to gather a collection of musicians and rework them, but I fell in love with the original sound and kept rolling with it. Analog synthesizers, drum programming, bass lines and lots of singing. I’m pretty controlled these days. I like that better. I used to just scream.”

Following a year of not writing any new music, Hussein is currently in the studio working on her next album. “I didn’t think I had anything to write about, but these are dark times,” she says. “Shit just seems to want to flow.”

—j. poet