Thursday, November 24, 2005


Hoping to make this one in Bristol tomorrow nite, if all goes to plan:

"Brap! Brap!" as Nick Guttah would say. Nick's down. Who else is in the area?


Steven R. Smith's been navigating his way round the edge of all this stuff for a decade or so, sprinkling seeds from his magic bag of tricks that have germinated, and then grown into a bunch of oddly-beautiful musical-shapes w/ names like Thuja...Hala Strana...Mirza...

He hangs w/ that amorphous, limbo-lit library-cum-museum-cum-laboratory known as Jewelled Antler...a hazy Bay Area kollectiv of dudes centred round Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse, guys who've been out there on the ledge for ages, doing it fer real, exploring the eeirie latitudes where environmental noise, psychedelia, found sound and outsider-folk all intersect.

Apologies to The Unbroken Circle for pinching this spaghetti-like road-map of musical alligances, a human jigsaw-puzzle that would take me a month to explain. In a nutshell, here's how this all fits together:

Right, now that you've memorised that vast array of outcultural connections, let's talk about "Crown of Marches", Steven R Smith's latest solo album on the wonderous Catsup Plate Records:

(Many thanks to Rob Carmichael at Catsup for aiming this in my direction via Jon Galkin.)

"Crown of Marches" is a single, planet-sized composition that migrates effortlessly thru a series of interlocking geopsychological terrains. Initially, the music seethes and grinds against itself...and a rain, a slow deluge of cracked guitarnoize falls past can almost hear the frequencies breaking down into rough, sand-like grains of sound, raw and arrid, an endless vertical upturned egg-timer slowly emptying... individual moments caught at the point of disappearance, their passing marked by splintered microtones.

And tracking this stately cascade of guitar swarf is an ominous East European-sounding wind-instrument. It sounds like we're crossing the border at this point...trekking out into some unnamed, ghostly hinterland.

The music sounds more mapped-out, less 'free' than some of the stuff I've been hearing recently...around 10 minutes or so into the piece, some sky opens up above it and you can almost hear the music dragging its hefty psychedelic lineage thru the desert behind it, like Franco Nero and the coffin in Django. And when the fuzz-guitar cranks itself up, then allows itself to rumble and fall like dusty, mountainous skree it starts to stretch out and play tricks w/ Time itself, sounding like an immense accidental deconstruction of something like, I dunno, "No Easy Way Down" by Eighties Paisley Underground outfit The Rain Parade...which, itself, is part of a West-Coast Psych Heritage stretching back down via the feedback explorations of Neil Young & Co. to The Band, Fillmore West, The Acid Tests and one-shot deal Nuggets-era Garage bands. What a long, strange trip it's been, from frazzled 3 minute Acid Punk versions of songs by The Stones and Them to 45 minute Freescape/Dreamzone explorations from New South Wales, but Smith's music somehow succeeds in making explicit linkages between Then and Now, joining ragged, seemingly random dots on a temporal map and leaving marker-stones for future generations to follow.

"Crown of Marches" invokes that peculiar, nebulous state of mind and soul that only travel can induce...there's a sense of endless forward movement in his music: sometimes, he's hiking barefoot across desolate foothills; at other points he's a willing passenger on an Astral Roadtrip, watching the world outside dissipate into a series of smeared snapshots...Time begins to compress into a blur of nameless towns and landscapes as we drift onwards, following the skewed logic of a dream, gradually becoming Stateless, Nationless, Bodiless...

Keiji Haino has been mooted by some reviewers as a possible soundalike, but “Crown of Marches” is softer than Haino’s usual noise-blizzard MO; it’s more focused and linear, less angular…the hazy drone-jams of Flying Saucer Attack have also been described as a distant musical cousin, but this is more West Coast than West Country. Curiously, though, there’s an extended moment during the outro of “CoM” that sounds both desolate and unforgiving, a mournful requiem that unexpectedly reminds me of Clock DVA…though that's possibly some inadvertent neural backfire on my part, no doubt…

Still, enough of my subjective ramblings…Steven kindly responded to my typically lame-ass questions about the LP:

Something I was personally kinda curious about was how 'free' the composition was… did you originally come at it with any written parts or preconceived notions about how it might sound? Or did you just play it open-endedly and respond to yourself, so to speak, when you were over-dubbing parts?

SRS: On the whole, the song was improvised. I mean, I certainly had a definite mood I was going for and a specific key to play in, and I think I had one chord progression which surfaces about ten minutes in. I kind of thought in terms of dynamics and mostly made it up as I went along. There actually isn't a whole lot of overdubbing. Well, obviously there is some, for sure, but I had tapes and loops going in real time as I was laying down the main guitar so a lot of it was done together at the same time. And if I remember right, it was recorded in 10-15 minute chunks. I'd improvise from the beginning until I started to lose the plot, say after about 10 minutes or so. Then I'd come back the next day or whatever and add another ten minutes and just keep tacking on more and more until a basic song took form. Then I went back and added some minor overdubs like the bells and percussion and what have you.

The track def. has its own inner narrative…it ebbs and flows…it's very emotionally and visually evocative...without intruding on your private life, I was wondering whether you were actually aiming to invoke a particular feel or mood with the piece, or whether it just arrived where it arrived.

SRS: Well, I definitely had a mood and an emotional terrain I was trying to get across…all music should do that. But I don't know if I could articulate what that emotion is…that's why I made the record. The music is now the emotion and that changes depending on the listener.

Some people find it very bleak and barren, which I guess I can understand but, to me, I feel there's a definite sort of hope and beauty in there as well. The goal is to join both ends of that together: light/dark, sorrow/joy, individual/universe, a unity of sorts. That is really the reason I think I make music anyway…an effort to make some sort of connection to what's outside of myself or my ego, and to try and connect these seemingly opposite ends. If it's not about that conjunction, it's at least a yearning for that conjunction.

Place/time/setting is generally a big influence on how some of the Jewelled Antler/Thuja projects turn out…the 'feel' of the location often gets absorbed by or fed back into the music. Was that the case here?

SRS: Although you're correct in that environment and surroundings have played a big part in various Jewelled Antler projects, in this case it didn't much play into this. “Crown of Marches” was all done in my studio, with a concrete floor and artificial lights and wires and guitar amps and a lot of electricity and volume. So I don't know. Actually, I suppose that does dictate to a degree what you will do, so I take that back. It does have an effect: a musty old concrete room would probably give a bit of a cold, reverberant vibe, so I suppose it does. But there was no field recording or anything like that.

I know you're interested in Eastern European music, and it's influenced other projects that you've worked on, such as Hala Strana...I just wondered where that particular interest came from..?

SRS: I just have always liked traditional music from Eastern and Central Europe. From the very first time I had a chance to listen I immediately responded to it and felt at home with it. Who knows why? It just does. It's a very rich musical heritage which I found really inspiring. It too contains that unity between emotional ends that I mentioned earlier: light/dark, sorrow/joy…the music from this region has all that to spare. And I suppose all the music that I really connect to probably has to have that element in it.

There's an 'eastern' kinda feel to parts of "Crown of Marches", particularly near the beginning of the track, where an ominous tone/drone sound is being played…it reminds me maybe of a saxophone…I was wondering where that sound was coming from?

SRS: At the beginning of the track, I believe there is only sludgy guitar noise and an instrument called a xaphoon which I have, which is sort of like a sax or a clarinet in sound but is much easier to play than either of those. It's actually a tape of me playing it which is then pitched down to the correct key of the song so it's even lower and more bellow-ish sounding because of that. I imagine that's the instrument you're referring to.

Was pleasantly surprised to find out that you were into Zoviet*france... did you ever get any of their LPs that were packaged in Metal/wood/cloth a few years back...

SRS: Zoviet*France...yeah, great group. My fave period is late 80's..."Popular Soviet Songs and Youth Music", "Loh Land", "Shouting at the Ground", "Look into Me", etc.. I do have a bunch on vinyl, but only my copy of "Misfits, Loony Tunes and Squalid Criminals" LP is really involved with tissue paper and poster boards. The other vinyl I have are more straight forward packaging, (although they're double LPs)... Oh, and the CD of "Popular Soviet Songs" is really nice with the Military felt and Soviet pin. Yeah, I always kind of come back to them and they're quite an influence although it probably doesn't always show, but it's definitely in there.

Are there any forthcoming projects you’d like to alert people to?

SRS: There’s a Hala Strana lathe-cut 7 inch called "White Sleep" on Soft Abuse, and a full length Hala Strana CD called "Heave the Gambrel Roof" which should be on Music Fellowship. I have no idea when these might come out, but the recordings are done and the labels have committed to releasing them sometime. The 7 inch should be fairly soon... The solo LP "Kohl" just came out on Emperor Jones which I think is one of my best recordings. It's a reissue of a limited CD-r that came out on Jewelled Antler and then went out of print. Now it's a real lavish LP reissue which will probably also go out of print ‘cause they only did 400 copies, but there should still be some floating around. Sale's have been pretty quick on that I'm happy to say.

Thanks for that, Steven

A quick check with Chris at Soft Abuse revealed that the 7-inch lathe-cut should hopefully be out sometime in Feb. or March, but expect that one to fly out the door. Meanwhile get on over to Steven’s place, where there’s loads of mouth-watering musical goodies available for you restless freaks to explore…