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Foxy Digitalis  5.17.04

by Brad Rose  

Steven R. Smith has been creating original, interesting music for a long time. During the mid '90s, Autopia put out his two debut solo releases ("Log the Man Dead" cassette & "Gehenna Belvedere" LP). This was also when he started his first band with Glenn Donaldson, Mirza. Mirza was Smith's baby, but perhaps its most lasting impact was the beginning of his musical relationship with Donaldson. When Mirza split up, the duo recruited longtime sonic artist Loren Chasse and old friend Rob Reger and formed one of the most brilliant and bizarre bands working today in Thuja. They've released numerous albums on the Emperor Jones and Jewelled Antler imprints and continue pushing the boundaries of found sound and improvisation. Recently, Smith pushed his solo recordings into a new realm with the creation of Hala Strana. Based on traditional folk of Central and Eastern Europe, this project is unlike anything I've ever heard. He continues making solo recordings under his own name, like 2002's excellent "Kohl," and shows no signs of slowing down. This interview was conducted via email by Brad Rose

How did Thuja first get together?

After Mirza fell apart, Glenn and I started talking about getting something happening and he had seen or met Loren at a show Loren played. I think Glenn really liked how Loren was supposed to be "the drummer" in this group that he saw play, but Loren actually played very little drums at all. Instead he was messing around with amplified rocks and sticks, organic matter and various busted instruments, getting into some pretty cool stuff.

We were talking about playing something much more acoustic and quiet but also improvised and so Loren was perfect cause he was already independently pursuing this type of situation on his own. And he's a nice guy to hang around with and has similar interests and ideas about music, etc...Rob we've known for a long time and we've played in bands with him before and he was interested in doing something too. So all the timing was perfect to start playing together. Anyway we liked how things went that first day and it really sounded pretty much like what we do, just from the very start.

What would you say is the main inspiration of Thuja?

For me, it's really just to make beautiful music, as simple an explanation as that is. It's just a very satisfying way to play and I don't try to read too much into it other than that. But people bring up the topic of "nature" a lot with Thuja, and so I think that is probably more of an answer to your question, but I don't know if I really think about nature or even the outside world much at all when I play. Whatever it is that I'm personally trying to get at when I play is much more vague to me.I don't really know what it is. If I could articulate it in any sort of definite terms I probably wouldn't be playing music. I mean, this could be a long discussion, this topic... But when I look at Thuja's music apart from playing it, "nature" certainly plays into it: the imagery, the organic structure (or lack thereof) of the songs, the name of the group, the sources for some of the sounds and instruments, and so on. And nature does play an important role in the interests and lives of some of the other members as well. So that is a big part of it.

When going into a Thuja session, how do you approach it? What would you say your mindset is?

It's a very open and loose situation and any instrument or object is a possibility for use. Rob has a lot of junk and broken instruments around his space and we also bring various things depending on what we each feel like using that day. We don't discuss any objectives or song ideas, we just start playing. The most important part in all this is that we listen and try to contribute to the sound that is happening in the room. At any given point in a Thuja piece someone probably isn't playing at all but is keeping quiet and that's really, really important to how we play together. It's really about complimenting the music rather than directing it. Keeping the ego out of it. At least as much as possible anyway. Itt's not always so easy. I mean, things need to be pushed around or started off in a direction, of course, but mostly we try to play as free and organically as possible. Compliment rather than impose upon the moment.

What has it been like working with Glenn Donaldson, first in Mirza and now with Thuja?

I've known Glenn for probably 15 years and been playing music with him for most, if not all of that time. We were in high school punk rock bands and all of that, so it's been a long time and so it's very easy to communicate when we play. But that goes for Rob and Loren too. More than anything, with Thuja we've created a way of playing together, a language of sorts, so that we don't have to labor over and discuss what we want to do when we get together to play. All I can really say is it's been really easy and inspiring to play with them.

What's the strangest or most amusing Thuja-related story you have?

God, I don't know. We played a bar once in Oakland, well its not just a bar as they often put on some pretty cool shows there, but it's also a bar and Thuja is pretty quiet so we were competing with the patrons, the bartender, the TV, etc. and the sound was pretty crappy on stage, we couldn't really hear each other which is pretty crucial for improvised music. Anyway, the show wasn't really working very well, probably one of my least favorite Thuja moments. I don't know about the others, but for me it was kind of dragging and so I'm feeling it up there and getting kind of discouraged. Other than the few people who came to see us, the rest of the bar is not interested and they're watching some ballgame on TV. All of a sudden this biker guy in the bar (I had actually met him earlier that night and he was a nice guy) well, he decides to buy a round of beer for everyone and so the bartender rings this fucking loud bell, like the liberty bell or something. It was actually a real nice sound.. but he announces over the PA "Everyone! Next round is on Alan!" which brought an eruption of cheers from everybody in the bar. And here we are trying to play this delicate shit. I actually started to get up to go get a free beer too, you know, but then realized we were still in the middle of our set.

I guess watching Rob run around his backyard with some sort of cement roller and "play" the backyard during one of our sessions was pretty amazing. Just about any of the sticks and detritus that Loren drags with him to play is pretty funny but I guess you need to see this sort of thing for the humor in it to get across. I mean, I think it's pretty funny.

What are the most difficult aspects about making field recordings and recordings in the locales that you do with Thuja?

This may seem kind of odd considering the working methods of many of the Jewelled Antler groups where field recordings and playing outdoors in natural locales are so important but its most of the other groups that do that. Most of the Thuja sessions have taken place at Rob's warehouse or in his backyard. It's mostly the Blithe Sons who have perfected those methods, going into the woods or caves, etc. So I don't know how to answer this directly.

Now having said that, the room and environment that Thuja plays in very much becomes another instrument in itself. It's real important. And we treat recording Thuja the way you would a field recording type situation. We usually just set up one stereo mic somewhere in the room that seems likely to capture everything. That's it. It's actually really, really easy. What comes out on tape is what you get, and it's so much different than having a sound in your head and then trying in vain to get that sound onto tape which is what happens in more controlled recording environments. You know, trying to get that right drum sound or whatever.

How did your sound evolve from your highschool punk rock days to what it is today?

I guess things have just kind of progressed as a reaction to what we were doing before: i.e. Mirza was a loud rock band, now let's try a quiet group with acoustic instruments, just to do something different. As I've gotten more interested in various kinds of music over the years, the way I play music has kind of moved along with those, as well. Like when we were in more punk and post-punk type bands back then, we were (or at least I was) still really just emulating my favorite bands and that was the kind of stuff we were listening to. This is like ten, twelve years ago. I mean, compared to now, my music interests weren't very broad back then; but over time you seek out more things. Just getting exposed to free jazz, traditional music from around the world, folk music, soundtracks, modern composers, all of this just opened things up. And it's still opening.and you kind of see how all this music relates to each other. The timelessness of it all. So as you get exposed to different types of stuff you start to take on parts of all of that. You learn that there's more to do with a song than just 3 chords and a guitar. One chord is probably better, you know? Things can be done in various ways. That's not to say I'm still not totally emulating and copping things, but hopefully things are developing into something that's more of my own. I can't objectively say. Maybe I just hide the thievery better. But definitely getting away from this sort of straightjacket of using only guitar, bass, and drums has been really important. And the best method I've found to keep things interesting is to try and use other instruments that maybe you can't play so well. And to try and play music that maybe you can't play so well.kind of overreach your ability and through this sort of ineptness something interesting might result.

What inspired you to start your Hala Strana project and how does it differ from your recordings under your own name?

Hala Strana really just came out of all this traditional music from Eastern and Central Europe that I had been listening to. I've just been kind of drawn to this music and I had always kind of tried to reference this music a little bit in my solo music, but I hadn't ever really tried to get into it and explore it very deeply. So it was kind of an excuse to dig up some more records--I was really familiar with some of the more current groups playing this music like Muzsikas and Taraf de Haidouks, I had seen them play and had their records but then I started trying to trace it backwards, get the old Library of Congress and Smithsonian/Folkways recordings, the Arhoolie stuff, recordings from the 20's and 30's, Bartok's old field recordings and try and fit it all together. And it was all just really inspiring and I wanted to do something with it. So Hala Strana is just kind of my pathetic attempt at be a part of this wonderful music.

The solo stuff is certainly less defined, it's just music that I can do on my own, apart from a group situation. I know at times, the Hala Strana music and some of my solo music could be one and the same, but at other times they do differ quite a bit. Hala Strana definitely has an objective or a specific direction which focused on the traditional music from Eastern and Central Europe whereas my solo records wouldn't or haven't been pinned down to that kind of conceptual starting point. They just go wherever I've felt like going at the time. What's funny is they still kind of just hover around the same areas, so I don't know, I need to get it moving to some new places.

You say you're drawn to the Eastern/Central European music that inspired Hala Strana. What initially attracted you to this music? And what's a good starting point for someone interested in exploring it?

Well, this goes along with what I was saying before, seeking out different musics from all over. I don't know why I'm so drawn to music from this particular area compared to others, but I am. When you dissect it, by notes and scales, it's sort of close to what I naturally write anyway so it's not so hard for me to pick up on by ear. It just slides in very nicely to the music already playing in my head all the time. That's not to say I dig all of it, but the ballads and laments I really, really love. And when some of those groups get going, it can be really intense and out of control and that's great too. So after hearing and seeing current groups like Muzsikas play, I started tracing the traditional songs back just to see where it was coming from-getting the old Smithsonian/Folkways records, the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music LPs, Arhoolie releases, the Bartok field recordings, etc. and soon you're listening the same songs but a version from 1920 or whatever, and they just get more interesting and out there the further back you go.

As far as where to start, well, I'd say "The Prisoner's Song" by Muzsikas and maybe the self-titled disc by Taraf de Haidouks on Nonesuch. Both are easily available and really good. The old Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music series is pretty good, and when you find them they're like a buck on LP, Some countries from that series have been re-issued on CD for the Alan Lomax collection on Rounder. The purpose of the series was to get field recordings from the whole world on record or something like that, this was like in the late 1940's and 50's I believe. a record for each country. They only got up to about 18 countries before giving up on the project, but I have a few of them around. The Yugoslavia one is great. The LP's are better because they're scratchy and have all these fucked up edits all over them which I find pretty interesting. On the CDs they get in there and digitally clean them up and they lose a little charm, I think. From there, just try the public library. That's where I found a lot of the older stuff that's out-of-print. You can still order things directly from the Smithsonian as well. You just need to start digging that stuff up if you want it. What's discouraging is there's just so much music that was never really recorded, and so it's lost to most of us, and as these few people that do remember the songs out in the villages and the rural parts get older and die, unless they're passing them on to other musicians, they're taking these songs with them to the grave. Actually, there's something beautiful about that in a way, but it's our loss.

Back to the stuff under your own name... listening to "Lineaments," there seems to be a heavy drone influence on a lot of the material there. It's like this collection of big, intimidating drones. I love it. The record, though, seems to sound "bigger" than many of the others. My question is, what influenced those recordings and led them in that direction?

That's funny, I have a weird thing with that record for some reason. It just wasn't a very fun record to make for some reason. I mean, I do like it and there's some songs on there I think are great, but as a whole record, it just doesn't sit real well with me and I think it's just because I was miserable when I worked on it. I was going through some shit and I didn't really know what I wanted to do and I just kept hammering at it and I think I kind of bludgeoned it to death. But what I was trying to do was just focus on repetition and using cycles of riffs or melodies which I'd layer over each other, but each layer would be a different length so they would continually get out of sync when they would repeat.kind of like rounds which don't match up. You can hear it in some of the passages in a lot of those songs on there if you try, but it turned out to be too subtle and it wasn't as fucked up as I hoped it might be. But there is a quality about it which is kind of like my half-assed version of those Moondog pieces, with all the layers that keep coming in on top of each other and it keeps getting bigger.

Most of your recordings seem to use very little, if any, effects. It seems like instead of using a delay pedal or something for a fuller sound, you just layer instruments. Do you use effects? And what are your thoughts on them either way (in favor of, against, don't care)?

I do like effects and have a bunch of them around and I certainly do use them. If I remember correctly, Lineaments is full of effects, that's probably part of my problem with that record, I was mucking about with the studio and manipulating things and all that shit too much and not paying attention to getting something with some emotion or life on tape. Lately I've kind of been using effects less and less though, so you're right, but that's just a taste thing, and the next record could very well be drenched in all of that. I don't know. I did swear off keyboards (aside from the organ) for the Hala Strana stuff and made an effort to record that project as natural as possible, but that was just to see what I could do within that context. When I was recording mostly on 4-track, these effects were crucial for me to try and get sounds I liked. I mean, I'm certainly guilty of overdoing the reverb on some of those records, but I think it really worked for those songs and that's the important thing.

"Kohl" is probably my favorite of your solo records because it seems to be the most demanding. Did you record "Kohl" all live, improvised with no overdubs or anything? I ask, because I was amazed at how cohesive the ideas were. The record flows remarkably well. How did you mentally approach recording the album and did you find the experience any more rewarding than your approach to other records?

Now I really like "Kohl" a lot myself as well. I think it's one of my better records. And I have real good memories of making it. It was done live, one-take, and most of it is improvised-- a real fast, immediate way to make a record. No bull-shitting about (which I often fall prey to). I would do a song a night for like a week or two, and that was it. Hardly spent any time at all on it, and I love it. So easy, and very direct.

There are a few ideas or chord progressions that I would return to which I had probably worked out 10 minutes before I recorded it so I guess that's "composing". Whatever. Someone once said that composing is just improvisation in slow motion. I like that. Mingus said that I think, and it makes sense. I did tack on those little outros which were also little snippets of guitar things I had around. I was going to have each song run into the other continuously and so those little outros would have been the links. I guess in the end I just liked the songs separate so that's how they stayed. Originally the recording was supposed to be an all piano record which Jason at 3 Acre Floor had been bugging me about doing, but I didn't have access to a piano at the time and I'm not sure I could have pulled that off anyway, so I switched to guitar. In the end, Jason moved to Germany and kind of stopped doing his label for awhile so he didn't put it out anyway and "Kohl" is what I was left with.

Where would you say your main source of inspiration comes from?

Just lots of things-- film, photography, art, other people's music. I have folders of stuff I've gathered for artwork possibilities, and some of that is just piles of photographs of rural areas, landscapes, old buildings, which I find very helpful in drumming up ideas. For the Hala Strana stuff I was just immersing myself not only in the music of Eastern European, but also art and film which represented this area.photographs by Josef Koudelka, the early paintings by Marc Chagall of villages and musicians in Belorussia, films by Sergei Parajanov, particularly Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. These things were of great help.

I often think of your solo records as having a gloomy underbelly to them. It's like there is this constant battle between light and dark going on within them. How do you feel you manifest these things in your music?

Someone else asked me about that once and I really don't have much to say about it cause I don't know why that is. It's just how it comes out. I know when I'm doing it, but I don't even question it. It's just what I hear in my head. Maybe it's about balance. I do know that it's what I like about other people's music, that conflict or maybe tension is the better word. I respond to it in other people's music I like so it must mean something to me.

What do you think the state of avant-garde, improvised, folk music is today? Do you think it's getting diluted with so many people trying their hand at it?

I guess it's fine. This is just a label. To me, good music is timeless and isn't beholden to these terms so it is what it is. Like anything, there's some good music that's happening in this area and some that I don't really care much about, I'm mean I'm no expert, just a listener and a music fan. I have no idea where we fall into all this. This is a great question, actually, but I'm not going to criticize any current groups and artists here. But great, honest music will stick around and that's all anyone should really be concerned with.

Other than music, what artistic outlets do you have? And how do you think they influence each other?

I occasionally make woodcut prints and many of those have wound up on the artwork of some of my solo releases. Just doing the artwork in general for releases is really important to me and it kind of feeds the whole thing. Just photocopying and water-coloring images, cut-and-paste type layouts, and so on. I've made little hand-made books for some of the limited releases. Also, I build a lot of the instruments I play, and all of this is just kind of part of the overall process of making music. It's all related and part of what I do with my time.

Who are you listening to these days? I'm on a jazz kick at the moment, so lot's of 60's era jazz stuff--Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc. Nothing all that unusual or anything, but it's what I've been listening to a lot lately. I've also been listening very heavily to those field recordings from Eastern and Central Europe which I mentioned before, I love that stuff, and lots of late 60's and early 70's folk music too.

What direction do you hope to take your solo recordings in next?

I'm figuring I'll maybe try something along the lines of "Kohl" again, really basic and not very ornate, but maybe use more of a variety of instruments this time, rather than just guitar. We'll see, but if I do more solo things I imagine them to be more stripped down and actually kind of "solo" performances on tape in the true sense of that word, and use the more arranged or orchestrated type things for Hala Strana or some project under a new name.