A Conversation With M.C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger)

Quietly Blowing It (Merge) is Hiss Golden Messenger’s funkiest album to date. It also may be M.C. Taylor’s most joyful—which seems a bit odd given its lockdown origins. The follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Terms Of Surrender was written and arranged by Taylor at an easy pace in his Durham, N.C., home studio. He wrote daily, coming up with about 24 songs before bringing a smaller batch to his band at Durham’s Overdub Lane, where they hammered out a nimble and lean 11-song LP.

A wide-eyed realist, Taylor isn’t one to get wrapped up in any sort of “all is well” naivete. His is a hard-earned contentment gleaned from acceptance. As the titled implies, Quietly Blowing It sees our flawed humanity and the world’s perpetual state of crisis for what it is. It’s the exhale that comes after groping your way out of the abyss, clinging to the things that really matter: family, friends, love, passion—and plenty of cowbell. More on that last thing below. 

After listening to Quietly Blowing It too many times to count, two words come to mind: More cowbell.
[Laughs] Well, yeah, there’s a lot of cowbell on this one. It’s a great and often misused percussion instrument. It does a very specific tonal and rhythmic thing. When I wrote, demoed and arranged the album in my small studio at home, I was playing all the drums and percussion in those versions—and I had cowbell that I kept reaching for. It seemed cool; it didn’t seem silly. So, when we went into the studio for real, I was asking for a lot of cowbell.

The album also has an upbeat groove to it. 
I think your right in that it’s not a quarantine album. It didn’t want it to be tagged as something set apart from my other work simply due to the time when it was made. Lyrically, I think it’s a pretty clear-eyed assessment of the way that my life feels at the moment. There was a lot of solitude in the composing of it, and the place I so often went was the groove you hear on the record. I do think that the many months of composing and arranging by myself had something to do with the way the record falls together rhythmically.

The drumming is amazing.
[Matt McCaughan] is incredible. Over the past six or seven years, we’ve come up with an approach to this music that’s fun and, for Matt, interesting to play. For me, it helps telegraph things. I’ve always played close attention to the rhythm section. Or maybe we just found a certain groove on this record. Who knows?

You had quite a few songs to choose from for this one.
Not all of them were finished, and certainly not all of them were good. I left quite a few songs I had an affection for off the record. I never want the opposite. I have such a deep connection to vinyl. Seventeen to 19-and-a-half minutes per side is the perfect length of time. If I can get my records to 40 minutes or so, that feels like plenty. I want it to feel like, when you get to the end, you’re like, “Oh, it’s over?”

And you do that by ending with “Sanctuary,” the catchiest song on the album.
This record was incredibly tricky to sequence. I messed with it a lot. There’s not a ton uptempo tunes on the record. I had to find the right spots for those songs—“The Great Mystifier,” “Sanctuary,” “Hardly Town”—so the record didn’t sound like it was bogged down in midtempo stuff. Sequencing is this weird mental exercise.

Aside from music, what’s kept you sane over the past 18 months?
Being with my family. I have two kids—my daughter is about to turn eight, and my son is 12. It’s hard to imagine having gone though the past year and a half alone—even when it felt like we were getting in each other’s hair. It’s the first time in my kids’ lives that they’ve had me home for this long of an uninterrupted stretch. I also spent a lot of time with Jamaican music from 1970 to 1985. I’ve just gone so far down that rabbit hole.

Maybe that explains to warm groove of this record.
Probably. I’m always looking for a way to tip my hat to that type of music without actually playing the one-drop [rhythm]. I’m looking for a more nuanced way to show my love for that music. I actually started another band this year—Revelators—that’s instrumental and does draw inspiration from dub reggae and free jazz in a way that’s very obvious. But we’re still not doing the one-drop groove.

—Hobart Rowland