All Of These People Saved Me: An interview with Chris Schlarb

 

Chris Schlarb - "Psychic Temple II"It is difficult to begin talking about Psychic Temple II, the new album by guitarist Chris Schlarb, without first setting the context from which it grew.

In 2003, a home recording of rain falling outside his window and passing traffic below was the seed.  To that seed, he added the music of his own guitars, piano, organ, and percussion.  And from that, Schlarb launched into a collaborative process that would inform many subsequent recordings, including 2013’s Psychic Temple II.

Writing letters to selected musicians and asking them to participate on his project, Schlarb received CDs of recorded music and conversations from an impressively diverse group… pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley (of the Brian Blade Fellowship), percussionist & pianist Mick Rossi (Phillip Glass Ensemble), saxophonist John O’Gallagher (whose Anton Webern Project recording will earn some high praise in 2013), indie-folk musician Sufjan Stevens, experimental improv guys like multi-instrumentalist Tom Abbs (Triptych Myth, and now a co-owner of Northern Spy Records) and soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey, Ray Raposa (of the Castanets), drummer Justice Constantine, and Paul Parker (of Royal Trux) were just some of the musicians who contributed recordings to Schlarb’s project.  These, mixed in with Schlarb’s own music and the found sounds from personal home recordings, culminated four years later with the 2007 release Twilight & Ghost Stories.

Via this pen-pal correspondence and collage approach to mixing segments of recorded music and found sound, Schlarb created a mesmerizing sonic montage of cerebral musings and evocative interludes, awash in a gentle downpour of ambient expressionism.

Around the same time Schlarb was releasing Twilight & Ghost Stories, his I Heart Lung duo collaboration (Schlarb on guitars, Tom Steck on drums) was wrapping up a five year recording span with the release Interoceans… an album that illustrated the development of the duo’s sound from a free jazz threat balled up in a punk rock fist to a more textured, thoughtful articulation of foggy drones and dissonant washes… landing it in territory not far removed from the place where Twilight & Ghost Stories ended up.

And then came Psychic Temple.  The first album of a two-album project, Schlarb built on his process of mixing together the contributions from an army of guest musicians to that of his own music, each bringing their individual sound, and with the climax of a four part suite of lullaby melodies, susurrous rhythms, and mysteriously unfolding harmonies… an abstract form of sonic storytelling.

In addition to many of the artists who participated on his previous recording, Schlarb enlisted the aid of bassist Mike Watt (of the Minutemen), drummer Andrew Pompey, vocalists Julianna Barwick, DM Stith, Joel St. Julien (of ELLUL), bassists Steuart Liebig and Anthony Shadduck, guitarist Danny Miller, trumpeter Kris Tiner, the drumming and percussion of Tabor Allen and Nick Hennies (of Weird Weeds), multi-instrumentalist Aaron Roche (and others).  Schlarb recorded their parts, corralling their sounds and bringing them together in a way that resulted in a fullness of expression that Twilight & Ghost Stories had hinted at repeatedly.

The development of Schlarb’s vision continues, now, with the release of the second and final part of his Psychic Temple project… Psychic Temple II releases on July 16th, 2013.  And as opposed to the first part’s construction as extended pieces of a near singular entity, the follow-up is an album of songs.  Continuing his collage method of composition and production, Schlarb weaves the music into tighter bundles of sound.  Remarkably, he maintains a cohesion between the two albums.

For Psychic Temple II, drummers Andrew Pompey and Tabor Allen are joined by returnees Sufjan Stevens, Kris Tiner, Aaron Roche and Ray Raposa, and (among others) new collaborators Ikey Owens (keyboardist for Mars Volta), guitarist Paul Masvidal (of metal band Death), bassist Devin Hoff (of the Nels Cline Singers and with an interesting new release Memory From Below), vocalist Sarah Negahdari (of the Silverspun Pickups), and John Clement Wood (of the Black Keys).

Songs like “She is the Golden World” and “The Starry King Hears Laughter” are throwbacks to the first installment of Psychic Temple, flirting with extended epic narratives, whereas renditions of Brian Wilson’s “‘Til I Die,” Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” and the Zappa/Beefheart “Sofa No.2” present entirely new facets of Schlarb’s vision.  And then there’s a track like “All I Want is Time”… a cross pollination between the two, referencing melodic segments of the first album, but blossoming with the vocals of Arlene Deradoorian into the song structure typifying the second installment.

(A review of Psychic Temple II is forthcoming on Bird is the Worm, though in the meantime, please visit Schlarb’s site for more info on the album.).

As he prepared to begin a US tour in support of the new album, I was able to sneak in a quick interview of Chris Schlarb…

*****

Bird is the Worm:  You’ve got the new album Psychic Temple II coming out in just a matter of weeks, but from my point of view, that album doesn’t exist in isolation… there’s many things that led up to it.  I want to begin the interview about a time further back, which you allude to on your own site… at your Long Beach home and the sound of rain falling outside your window over the city… the sound that behaved as the seed for your album Twilight & Ghost Stories… can you talk a little about that moment?  Perhaps some insight into how you remember experiencing the day when it happened, and perhaps some insight into how you look back upon it now.

Chris Schlarb - "Twilight and Ghost Stories"Chris Schlarb:  Hmmm.  It’s interesting.  That was such a different period in my life.  I have a hard time remembering details sometimes.  Here’s what I remember:  I was alone.  My ex-wife left me and took our children.  I had just quit my job as an insurance adjuster, and was collecting unemployment.  I didn’t have any money in the bank and my new car was about to be repossessed.  Depression was setting in.

I was still living in the same place, but everyone was gone.  I didn’t have any steady music projects at the time.  I had my acoustic guitar, a couple of microphones, an early portable digital recorder, and an old organ I’d picked up at a thrift store.

A huge storm came through town, which doesn’t happen too often.  It’s always summertime in Long Beach… 70 degrees and sunny.  I put mics out of two windows… one facing east, one facing west… and recorded the sound of the rain and the sound of cars passing by.  I recorded for about thirty-nine minutes and immediately thought… knew… I had to work on this.  I had to turn it into something.  I didn’t have anything else.

BitW:  It became a refuge.

CS:  Totally.  It was a safe place for my heart and my mind.  There was so much turmoil with my family.  I missed my children terribly.  This recording was an anchor.  It gave me a reason to contact all these other musicians and ask them to contribute to Twilight & Ghost Stories.  I gave all of them different, cryptic information.  Now, this was before online storage was an option, so every week or two, I would get a CD in a hand-addressed envelope in the mail.  It was a contribution of music.  A collaboration!  And, more importantly, it was a kind of validation as a human being.  I was real.  These people weren’t judging me.  They weren’t feeling sorry for me or asking me questions about what was going on.

Looking back now, I realize that I was also trying to make music that I wasn’t capable of yet.  I didn’t study music.  I never went to college.  Until the last few years, I never knew any music theory.  I have always been on the outside fringe, getting by on scraps, and Twilight & Ghost Stories allowed me to collaborate with someone like Mick Rossi.  I mean, why would someone out in New York City who plays with Philip Glass and Paul Simon work on something with me?  His kindness and openness meant so much to me.  I felt like because he said yes, I wanted to be better.  I wanted to deserve it.  The overwhelming memory is that all of these people saved me.

BitW:  Let’s talk a bit more about how you constructed Twilight & Ghost Stories… you’ve received all these CDs containing bits of recorded music in the mail, you have your own instruments… what was step 2 of the process?  You don’t have to go too much into detail of the nuts and bolts of the thing, but the collaborative nature of Twilight & Ghost Stories seems to inform both of your Psychic Temple albums, so it might be nice to know a bit of your first venture into this type of pen-pal collaboration and how it’s changed with new collaborations.  How did “Step 2” eventually become the final album?

CS:  So I had thirty-nine minutes of rain and street sounds.  The interesting thing about that was the possibility of playing with time.  I didn’t have to start at the beginning and work my way to the end.  When I got a CD in the mail, I could put something at ten minutes and then the stuff on the next CD could go at twenty-five minutes.  That idea really freed me up from having to think of music in this very linear fashion.  It doesn’t have to start at one and end at thirty-nine.  I had twelve tracks to work with on my recorder.  I wasn’t using a computer (not in the beginning anyhow).  Interesting things started happening.

Chris Schlarb - LightsI would play back the piece, and bringing up the faders, all these different parts and pieces would come in.  I was just layering things.  Whatever I could find:  recordings I made when my kids were visiting, when friends and musicians would come over, the stuff on the CDs that everyone was mailing me.  And every once in a while, I would sit down and record something new… organ here, percussion there, acoustic guitar.  The whole piece is made up of fragments.  Each mix of Twilight & Ghost Stories was a different version.  I could mix it again today and it would be a completely different album.

There are a lot of sounds present on the recordings, but were mixed out.  I recorded them, but I didn’t want them to be heard.  They were like landmines.  For example, there’s a recording of my ex-wife in there.  I always knew it would be in the piece, but it’s hiding.  Because of these forgotten and unexpected elements, there was a big improvisational aspect to presenting Twilight & Ghost Stories.  Both the mix and the recording required a large amount of improvisation.  I could be playing guitar and then this blast of white noise would come in on a track and affect my performance.  Because I only had 12 tracks, every single one of them is jammed end to end with sound.  As soon as one sound ends on Track 1, for example, another sound begins… for twelve tracks, for thirty-nine minutes.

BitW:  What I’ve always found fascinating about Twilight & Ghost Stories is the outside/inside dichotomy.  Just as traffic and the weather passes by your window, it sounds like the musicians and voices are simply passing through your recording room, too, as if every sound is very transitory and happenstance, but coalescing in one of those extended moments when everything comes together exactly as it should.  It definitely doesn’t sound like a crafted piece.  It suggests a spirit of spontaneity and chance.

CS:  When I made Twilight & Ghost Stories, I didn’t have much experience in production or composition.  I jumped into free jazz because of the rebellion.  It was like punk rock to me.  I worked on Twilight & Ghost Stories over the course of five years, and I changed so much during that time.

BitW:  Well, let’s talk about that.  In the meantime, you were working on the collaboration of I Heart Lung, which seemed to begin as a free jazz guitar-drums duo, but then, with the release of the final I Heart Lung album Interoceans, your sound had developed into the blend of jazz, ambient drone and post-rock noise generator that I associate with artists like Charles Gorczynski, Charles Rumback, and some of Fred Lonberg-Holm’s projects.  It also isn’t that far removed from Twilight & Ghost Stories.  Did your work on Twilight & Ghost Stories, which covered the span of I Heart Lung releases, change the course of I Heart Lung’s sound or was this just the course your creative development was taking you and it didn’t really matter what project you were working on at the time… it was going to end up as a blissful form of avant-garde?

CS:  Over the years, I think you can hear a gradual movement of working toward a beauty in the music.  I compartmentalize everything.  My family life.  My music life.  My music projects.  My compositions.  My day job.  I knew that I Heart Lung was something special.  It was the perfect place for me to combine composition and improvisation.  I was just getting my sea legs, and it was amazing to play with Tom [Steck] day after day and not have another melodic instrument get in my way.  In reality, it would have been the other way around… I would have gotten in the way.  I am always learning on the job.

I Heart Lung recorded our debut album, Blood & Light.  A few months later we went on a 30 day US tour.  It was surreal.  We opened for Castanets and Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice.  I might be wrong, but I think the only reason it happened was because the tour needed another van.  Tom Steck had one.  So we were in.  I remember working on Twilight & Ghost Stories while I was on that tour.  I made a mock up of the chart that is inside Twilight & Ghost Stories with all the musicians and their corresponding times.  It was Ray Raposa of the Castanets who convinced me to release Twilight & Ghost Stories under my own name.

Another connective thread with Twilight & Ghost Stories and Interoceans is those were the last times I used field recordings on an album.  The way I think of it now is that it had become a crutch.  It filled up sound.  There’s a safety net in using field recordings.  They can’t be judged in the same way you can judge a melody.  Still, they were so important for my growth as a musician and composer.

BitW:  One more Twilight & Ghost Stories question… so, you finalize the album, you put it out there… and a lot of time has passed, nearly five years since you first began the project… how much of a different place are you in at this point?  And does it act as the launching pad for the Psychic Temple sessions?

CS:  I seem to remember that once Twilight & Ghost Stories was done, I was very focused on Interoceans.  I think we started tracking Interoceans while I was still mixing Twilight & Ghost Stories.  It also marked another important shift for me… Asthmatic Kitty agreed to release Twilight & Ghost Stories and Interoceans, so I decided to shut down my own label, Sounds Are Active.  Once Asthmatic Kitty gave me that opportunity, I wanted to take full advantage.  I was spending so much time working on my own label, and managing (poorly) all of its releases.  In ten years, I put out fifty releases on Sounds Are Active.  One guy.  No money.  No connections.

I’ve always been a workaholic.  Back then, I was working on the label, and it was preventing me from spending time being creative.  So when Asthmatic Kitty released Twilight & Ghost Stories, I said to myself, okay, the reason I started a label was because of the fear of rejection.  I didn’t want to “submit” a demo.  Fuck that.  I thought, “No one can reject you if you start your own label!”  Of course, then I spent ten years trying to get distributors and radio stations to give our albums a chance. [laughs] So, in fact, much more rejection.

BitW:  Let’s talk about Psychic Temple I.  One thing that has always fascinated me about Psychic Temple I is that it sounds so organic… so in the moment.  I mean, I know that the album required some studio construction skills to bring together, yet every time I listen to it, the music makes me believe that I’m hearing a live studio performance… a one-take miracle of large ensemble group interplay.  When you’re listening to the music, in-process, in the studio, how much were you driven to accomplish that result?  Was it even something you were aware of?  Did it become a serious obstacle at some point to completing the album?

CS:  Psychic Temple I was my attempt to bridge the gap between Larry Young’s album, Of Love and Peace, and the Fripp & Eno song “Evening Star.”  The entire album is built around a single-day recording session with myself and drummers Andrew Pompey and Justice Constantine.  We were all in the same room, but the guitar was direct, just in the headphones.  To say the guitar parts were skeletal would be too kind a description.  I had a few melodic ideas, but not much going on harmonically.  But I did have a lot of direction for Andrew and Justice.  I would tell them, okay, no cymbals on this track, only brushes on that track, and make them sound like a flock of birds.

I took those drum recordings home, and fell in love with their interplay.  Then, I took out all the guitar parts and re-wrote everything.  It’s a very backwards way of working, but I think that speaks to your comment about it feeling so immediate and organic.  I wrote music to the drums, little by little.  I never edited them or changed one thing about those initial drum recordings.  Eventually, I started to craft melodies and chordal ideas that felt permanent.

Chris Schlarb - "Psychic Temple"I’m always thinking about whether or not something will hold up… will it stand up to time.  Psychic Temple I was the first time I began to have these kinds of thoughts.  Will anyone listen to this music in thirty years?  I wish more people asked themselves that question, honestly.  Not that all music needs to carry such a heavy burden, but you need to give people a reason to listen to your music more than once.  Most music fails in that regard.  That’s a lesson I’ve learned from pop music, especially.

So I worked on Psychic Temple I for about two years.  You can definitely hear and see the progression from Interoceans.  I started feeling more comfortable with [trumpeter] Kris Tiner, and eventually wrote two melodies for him to play.  That was big.  To me, Tiner is on a different level.  I have so much respect for him as a person and a musician.

When I wrote those melodies… “I Can Live Forever If I Slowly Die” and “White Dove in the Psychic Temple”… I knew I was entering a new phase.  I didn’t come through any jazz curriculum.  I got a year of lessons when I was in high school and that was it.  So to finally have a melody worthy of being played by Kris Tiner… well, that was its own reward.  Each one of these collaborations has been like going to school for me.  I learn from each of them and I prepare for them.  I mean, working with someone like Dave Easley of the Brian Blade Fellowship!  Man, Those first two Brian Blade Fellowship records are flat out masterpieces.

BitW:  Don’t get me started on those.  I’ll rave all night long.

CS:  Seriously.

BitW:  If drums were the foundation on which to build the first Psychic Temple album… what would you say was the equivalent on the second?

Chris Schlarb - "Psychic Temple II" (alt)CS:  Well, funny enough… drums!  Except this time, for the most part, the songs were written before the drums were played.  Psychic Temple II is the most rhythmic album I’ve ever made.  When I was working on Psychic Temple I (and Interoceans and Twilight & Ghost Stories, for that matter), I always felt like a sculptor.  I was chipping away at this sound to find the structure of the song.  With Psychic Temple II, I felt like a painter.  I was capturing and augmenting, instead of adding through subtraction.

I wanted to keep the spirit of Psychic Temple I intact, while not repeating the structures or concept.  I wanted to challenge myself to have a clearer idea on day one.  What am I trying to say?  Where is this going?  I felt more like a composer on Psychic Temple II than on anything I’ve ever done.  I knew the drum patterns when I was writing the chord progressions.  I knew who would be playing what and when and where.  Not that there weren’t surprises, because there were!  That’s one of the best things about making music like this.  There’s that great Quincy Jones quote about leaving enough room for God to walk through the session.

BitW:  What connections exist between the two Psychic Temple albums?  For instance, when I hear “The Starry King Hears Laughter,” it echoes some moments in “White Dove in the Psychic Temple.”  And “All I Want Is Time” almost sounds like a reprise of “Dream State > Police State.”  Was this intended going in, to try to provide some continuity between the two volumes of music or was this just one of those lovely coincidences that occur when pulling water from a single well of creativity?

CS:  Ah!  Now you’re asking about hidden secrets!  They are legion.  “All I Want Is Time” came out of work-shopping “Dream State > Police State” for live performance.  It became very apparent to me when we started playing live shows with the Psychic Temple ensemble that some of these tunes just weren’t holding together.  That was part of the reason I felt the need to add more structure.  It’s so difficult to pull off a patient song like “Dream State…” in front of an audience.  Oh my god, it’s almost agonizing.  It requires a certain intimacy and trust that many audiences aren’t prepared to give you.  And as a musician, you feel the need to fill up space.

Both albums exist in the same universe.  It’s a very defined, segmented kind of thing.  Each record is like that for me, I suppose.  I love continuity.  There are all kinds of references between albums.  For example, the opening vibraphone melody in “‘Til I Die” is the opening guitar melody from “I Can Live Forever If I Slowly Die.”  There’s a violin section that hits on the same melody, too.

BitW:  How much were you thinking about the second Psychic Temple album as you created the first one?

CS:  I was thinking of Psychic Temple II more as a concept than a collection of songs.  I hadn’t written any of the Psychic Temple II songs when I was working on the first.  I know some people have storehouses of material just waiting to be used, but not me.  I have to be in the moment.  It has to be a clear concept.  So the concept for album two existed… that’s why the first album sleeve was a gatefold.  There would be another record eventually.  I just hadn’t written it yet.

Chris Schlarb

Chris Schlarb

BitW:  Let’s talk about the rendition of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.”  Me, personally, that song always tugged at my heart a bit, but something about Joe’s version seemed to be lacking something.  I think it was how he really laid the rhythm on thick to drive home the sense of urgency, whereas it just seemed to me that the richest vein for tension was in the melodic delivery.  I guess this isn’t really a question, just an opportunity to ramble about some music oddity that has always bugged me.  So, what’s up with the Joe Jackson rendition?  What inspired you to record a take of that song on the new album?

Joe Jackson

CS:  I’m a big Joe Jackson fan.  I think of “Steppin’ Out” in the same way that I think of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You.”  Those songs represented the first time I remember hearing something new.  With “Steppin Out,” it was those Maj7 chords.  Glorious Maj7!  On “Within You Without You,” it was hearing sitar and tabla for the first time.  These were such new and inspiring sounds to me.  I’ve owned a copy of the Joe Jackson’s album Night and Day ever since I was a kid.  I listened to it all the time.  Still do.

BitW:  Is that how “Til I Die” came about or was there something else that drew you to that song?

CS:  “Til I Die” was the result of a message from Ray Raposa.  I think we were both thinking of that song at the same time.  He said I should do a Psychic Temple version of it, and that he and Sufjan [Stevens] and Nedelle [Torrisi] would sing it.  I thought, yeah, that’d be great, but didn’t really pursue it much further.  I mean, Sufjan lives in New York, Ray lives in Oregon, and last I knew, Nedelle was in Northern California.  So I didn’t have real high expectations that the concept would come to bear fruit.

Then, one day out of the blue, I got a call from Ray.  He said, “Hey, me and Sufjan and Nedelle will be in LA in a few days to record vocals.”  I said, “Oh shit.”  I had learned the song, but I hadn’t recorded anything.  So I told him, “Okay. I better record it then.”  He said, “Yep.”  So I called Andrew [Pompey] and Tabor [Allen] and Anthony Shadduck and explained the situation to them.  I said, look, we’ve got to record this song on Monday morning and then I’m recording vocals that night.  Everyone said ‘okay.’

The day of the session, I also presented them “All I Want Is Time,” and we cut the rhythm tracks after “Til I Die.”  That was the beginning of Psychic Temple II…  the first recording session.  Initially I thought it could be a 7″ or a one sided LP…  but I just kept writing music.

BitW:  You’re about to start a US tour.  What can people expect?

CS:  For the two-week East Coast segment of the tour, we’ll have a six piece band that includes Kris Tiner on trumpet, Steuart Liebig on electric bass, Andrew and Tabor on drums, Aaron Roche on guitar and vocals, and myself on guitar.  Once we get back to the West Coast in August, I plan on keeping the rhythm section intact, but we’ll augment the group with a few special guests sitting in, including Paul Masvidal from Cynic, singer-songwriter Paulie Pesh, and violinlist Philip Glenn.

Our set list will draw heavily on the second Psychic Temple album and lightly on the first.  We’ve been rehearsing a few covers, and I am really enjoying how integrated everything has become.  We’ve been rehearsing off and on for two months now.  This is the first time I have taken such a large ensemble on the road.  I’m sure I could have made more money by going out with a smaller group, but these are some of the best musicians in the world and I would rather make great music than make money.  I look at it as a once in a lifetime thing.  Most things are once in a lifetime… we just don’t recognize them as such.

BitW:  For artists in any medium, it seems like an essential part of finalizing the current project is to begin looking forward to the next one… even if it’s only the most rudimentary outline of a creative idea.  What do you think is on the horizon for you?  What would you like to find there?

CS:  It’s so funny you mention that.  We have a couple of West Coast shows lined up for early August, and then my wife and I are headed out to a remote cabin for a few days, where I’m going to record an album of solo acoustic and electric guitar pieces.  I’ve been wanting to do that for such a long time and it seems like the natural reaction to spending weeks on the road with a sextet.

Each new project is a kind of retreat from the last project.  My commitment is so intense and obsessive that I push myself to extremes.  By the time I’ve realized a project, I have to take a sharp turn and explore another space.

*****

US Tour

Chris Schlarb - Live

Chris Schlarb is currently on a US tour.  You can see the tour dates and venues on the Live Events page on his site, but just to summarize, beginning with today (Monday 7/15/13), he’ll be performing in Washington DC, Lynchburg, VA, Chattanooga, TN, Nashville, TN, Indianapolis, IN, Oshkosh, WI, then two shows out on his home turf of California, first in L.A., then in Long Beach.

There’s a good chance I’ll be at the Indy show, so stop by and say hello if you make it there.

*****

Psychic Temple II will be released on Asthmatic Kitty Records.  Explore their site.  They’ve got a roster of interesting musicians, spanning many genres, and you’ll likely find something new that’ll float your boat.  My brother-in-law Ty, who keeps buying me the coolest music each year for a Christmas gift, got me Julianna Barwick‘s The Magic Place, and it’s become one of my go-to albums when I need something peaceful and soothing first thing in the morning.

And now for some handy retail links.  I should mention that Schlarb offers some vinyl options on his Bandcamp page, which I assure you are very cool.

Chris Schlarb - "Twilight and Ghost Stories"Twilight & Ghost Stories:

Available at Bandcamp.  Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: CD | MP3

Chris Schlarb - "Psychic Temple"Psychic Temple I:

Available at Bandcamp.  Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: MP3

Chris Schlarb - "Psychic Temple II" (alt)Psychic Temple II:

Available at Bandcamp.  Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: Psychic Temple II | MP3 | Vinyl

*****

Also, to wrap things up, Chris Schlarb participated on my Work Space Tumblr page recently.  So, if you want to check out his home studio digs and stream a tune from his new album, follow this link to the site.

Cheers.