Isolation Drills: George Korein

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich. Cellphone shirt by Anthony Fasano.

Korein: I could ramble about the pandemic, but I’ll stick to what I’ve musically been up to. Check out on Bandcamp.

In 2018, I returned to releasing albums for the first time since 2014. I began collecting years of recorded songs and sorting them into albums, with various revisions, additions and edits. The first released was Ninety Mares. For the next four, I put them out one per season, each with a release show. 

• In spring 2019, I released Effortless Quest and performed it live.
• In summer 2019, I released Automating Season and performed it live.
• In fall 2019, I released Trilobites At The Tricentennial and performed it live.
• In winter 2020, I released Trilobites At The Sestercentennial and performed it live.
• In spring 2020, I released Denouemort and the pandemic hit, so there was no show.

Having finally finished released all of the Spleen songs that had been queueing up for years, next I finished and released a collaborative project called The Figurines And The George Koreins. I split it into two releases, Haunted Rowhomes and Trenton Akes The World Akes. I sang or spoke lyrics by my pen pal the Figure Een, who sang my lyrics for one song but wouldn’t sing any more, so I enlisted guest singers: Erica Corbo, Andrew Mars, Alex Vallejo and David L. Byrne.

This material is shaped by Een’s absurd words, old photos and no-fi phone recordings of dusty 78s and sundry pianos. One song is lyrically derived from emails he sent me about an unperformed opera he wrote about Trentonians George Antheil and Ernie Kovacs. You and I may never hear this opera, but the operatic “The Figure Een Wrote An Opera” is now publicly available.

Topical music can have a very short shelf life. I was glad to start a Spleen record from scratch and make music of this moment and release it while it is still of the moment instead of some time capsule from a time no one wants to remember. I tried to think of what opportunities exist in a purely remote project. Some prestigious musicians whose tours had just been canceled were advertising their newfound availability. I thought of contacting them, but realized I had no interest in cold-emailing a bunch of musicians outside of the Philly community, who I have no relationship to, just because they have recognized names. There is one guy I wanted to reach out to though.

My childhood friend and long-ago musical partner. Colin Marston, an icon in the tech-metal world, is normally so busy I’d never bother him to collaborate, but when his studio, normally booked solid months in advance, was suddenly empty due to mass COVID cancelations, I emailed him. He had mused in an interview that he’d like to try making digitally constructed pop music because it is the opposite of his wheelhouse, so I took him up on it.

For reference I sent him about 20 songs (Moses Sumney, Holly Herndon, Oneohtrix Point Never, Dan Deacon, Lump, Kompromat, James Blake, Spellling, Bat For Lashes, Arman Doley) and a tranquil ambient track to overdub on. He returned it with something foggy and uneasy and altogether inappropriate for that song, but perfect for a different song—one conceived while trying to open a doorknob with my elbows during the early “surfaces scare.” Overlaying the second half over the first half, it became the title track of The Touch Tendril.

Around this time, he released a four-hour ambient album. After actually listening to the whole thing, sometimes as bedtime music, I drastically time-compressed and edited it down to a montage. Over this, I put meandering synth, with lyrics about a disembodied driftabout inspired by the astral journeys of “noclipping mode” in ’90s computer games. For “the single,” I wanted something fantastical about turning away from reality into immersive fantasy. I reached out to DM Hotep of the Sun Ra Arkestra and steady Spleenster Alex Vallejo, for dazzling MIDI-equipped guitar and a voice prettier than mine, respectively. Philly jazz singer Michelle Lordi sang on the aforementioned tranquil ambient track, “The Eden Of Garden.” The song “2020 Spring Mix” described moments from that season with some humor and ambiguity. 

At some point, I must have accidentally updated my phone, something I avoid religiously. The Garageband app suddenly had a new drum-sequencing interface, which allowed me to introduce the element of chance and many other wild variables, enabling me to write grooves and set parameters from which variations would be generated, and then bring the MIDI data to other instruments. In this way, I could quickly compose a whole instrumental album with a very defined compositional style that could be applied to a wide variety of tempos, arrangements and moods.

I sent it to Colin, who helped flesh out the instrumentation and effects. Being not exactly a Spleen record and carrying the experimental spirit of our old duo Infidel?/Castro!, it was dubbed a George?/Korein! record. The album was not explicitly programmatic, but the pervading tension and abstraction felt pandemic-appropriate, as did the cover photo and the title, Certain Uncertain Circling.

For my next Spleen record, all of the lyrics were written in October before I had a note of music. I scrambled to get it out in early February while the title track, “When The World Gets Out Of Prison,” was still an imagining of the future. Where The Touch Tendril was inward, away from the world, dreamy, ambient and nearly drumless, When The World Gets Out Of Prison was reaching toward the world. A slew of remote guests contributed to a communal vibe, with drums nearly throughout.

Apart from the song “Wewe Gqombel,” all the musicians are in the Philly area, or once were. Just as David L. Byrne (of Charmaine’s Names) sent his Figurines vocals from L.A., Ricardo Lagomasino contributed from Maine and Helena Espvall from Portugal, so the local connection spans space and time. DM Hotep sent so many neat alternate musical ideas that I arranged some of them into separate intro and interlude tracks.

Normally, I record my vocals and acoustic instrumentation at Kawari, a lovely studio in Wyncote. I’ve been recording them at home now, and found out the hard way that I was doing it wrong. 

In 2019, Dylan Pecora made music videos for three of my songs, and working with him (and Jon Karel for a fourth) was such fun. The pandemic has interfered with my live-action video ambitions. I could have found someone who would do animation remotely, but I didn’t. With the help of Michael Gibson, I did make a video for “Softcore Dysphoria” using ’90s computer game clips, and on my own made a video for “Happily Addicted To Birds” starring my wife Liz Bot’s many birds. I have a queue of video concepts that I hope to be able to start on this year.

To state the obvious, I think audio media—music, audiobooks, podcasts, etc.—fills a valuable role in that it not only can it be experienced without looking at a screen, it can be consumed while walking a dog, doing chores, eating, driving, etc.