Steven R. Smith is one of the most prolific underground musicians working today. In addition to his numerous solo works including Hala Strana and more recently Ulaan Khol, he is a member of a number of influential collaborations such Thuja and Mirza. He is also a print maker and instrument builder, and from what I can tell from corresponding with him, a mensch. Important Records recently released his collaboration with clarinetist Gareth Davis, Westering and on the horizon is the forthcoming LP Cities. Smith was kind enough to answer some pestering questions.
Your music draws from a vast array of ideas and traditions. Do you also draw ideas and themes from non-musical influences such as art, literature, philosophy
Yes, these things definitely seem to seep in. Most often it’s books and films—recently both Cormac McCarthy’s the Road as well as the films of Hungarian director Bela Tarr have both sort of dickered their way into an LP of mine called Cities which will be released in the next week. It may not be apparent to listeners but I hear it in certain moods that I was trying to go for and certain phrases turn up in song titles and things like that. But Cormac McCarthy and Bela Tarr’s influence has cropped up in subtle ways in a lot of my previous records over the years. I guess they’re people I come back to often. I remember the films of Sergei Parajanov, particularly Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, were very influential on the Hala Strana records I did. Basically, I wanted to make Hala Strana sound like the way that movie looked and made me feel. I just loved that film, and still do. All of these examples are saying things in one medium that I wish or struggle to say in my own music.
Does making music have a ritual quality for you? Do you find that your music has effects on your own consciousness?
I think playing music definitely has an effect on my own consciousness, but this has also occurred from listening to other people’s music as well, seeing bands play and so on. I’d maybe even venture to say that if I’ve ever had a truly spiritual moment or a transcendent moment then it’s definitely been while playing music. Unfortunately, those seem to be far and few between though, but one keeps trying. Music is as valid a religion as any as far as I’m concerned. I guess any creative pursuit could be seen as a spiritual pursuit and, for me, music might even, at times, be the way I would engage in things the way I suppose others would use prayer or meditation. And hell, it’s also fun and it feels good. Now, that’s not to say that I think my music is special, far from it. I can’t stress that enough. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding self-important. I just mean the process of playing music (or any creative process) could have that potential to sort of lift you to another place, at least on a good day, and that’s not a bad thing to strive for. That goes for anyone, whether they’re gardening or cooking or painting, etc. That potential is there.
So the ritual part of it, I think it has a lot to do with preparation. A lot of what I do is improvised so it’s not so much about practicing what I’m going to play but rather getting in the right frame of mind and trying to understand what I want to say before I even start playing notes. Mostly just being in the moment, which really is a sort of prayer, right? Even just the process of plugging in your gear, tuning up, there’s a physical ritual of handling the guitar, a guitar I’ve held over and over for years and years, or instruments I’ve actually built myself, so there’s a connection with the tools as well and it’s comforting.
Lately, I’ve been struggling with time and not having enough of it. I work a full-time job and have a toddler at home so it’s hectic. And it’s getting harder to use my time wisely, it’s too diffuse and erratic, so lately I’m trying to write some music beforehand and then I’ll take a block of time off from work and just record the next record in a focused set amount of time. Not that everything will be written in stone but I’ll at least have some source material to start with, maybe a concept, some things to work with, maybe some goals to tackle. And what I’m finding is that there is ritual in that as well. It’s very calming, just moving notes around on a piano or an acoustic guitar, slowly putting things in place but not actually recording or even really playing, just free associating during this sort of vague writing process that I’m going through.
The music you make and the people you collaborate with are often lumped together into that now very broad category of psychedelic music. Does this word mean anything to you? Do you think it is an important signifier?
The word psychedelic doesn’t mean a whole lot to me at this point but I’ve used it myself to describe what I do. So there you go. It’s a loaded term, for sure, but I don’t find it to be too embarrassing so I guess it’s better than others. It’s just the cartoonish image that comes up when the average man on the street thinks of something as “psychedelic”--“Incense and Peppermints” and the lava lamp and a camera lens zooming in and out to the beat really quickly—that’s sort of a bummer. And that’s not what I think of when I think of psychedelia. My first thought would be something like the MC5 rocking the Democratic Convention with the riot squad and the helicopters overhead, so my image of what’s psychedelic is not really very accurate. I think Ornette Coleman is psychedelic! I’d say when talking to friends though, music friends, the word psychedelic usually refers to good qualities, things we like, bands that we respect and so that’s usually a compliment so it’s still an important signifier, at least to “those in the know.” Ha ha. I guess to others it might not. Part of the music I make is psychedelic, no doubt, so the term’s fine with me, but I hope there’s a little more to it than that. Frankly, it’s better than “freak folk” or some of the other terms people have used that this stuff sometimes gets lumped into.
What kind of music were you listening to growing up? Did you always tend towards underground music?
Once I was old enough to know better, I guess I just started to lean toward more underground stuff. Honestly, the music’s just better, plain and simple, at least for what I value and am looking for. I was fortunate that I grew up in Fullerton, California where there was a really thriving punk scene in the early 80s, and although I was way too young to be directly part of that scene, we grew up in the shadow of it and I do think that had an effect. And it just felt like it was something you could do and do it on your own terms. You would see these people in bands you respected walking down the street, hell some of the younger ones were still seniors in my high school when I was a freshman and they had records out — very cool. That’s what I wanted to do. I never had dreams of playing a stadium to the adoring masses. Recently, I was talking with someone I work with and she had seen U2 play on their last go around at whatever arena it was and she mentioned how it was a real emotional experience for her. The show itself really affected her, and this just shows how people get different things out of music. I personally can’t understand how being in an arena at the back row watching some performer on a video screen could be much of a moving experience but it worked for her. I want to see a band in their practice space.
In middle school and high school it was some punk rock and a lot of post punk: you know the staples: Joy Division, Smiths, Cure, Bauhaus, whatever, but we also were rabid about the Dischord records stuff—Rites of Spring, Soul Side, Dag Nasty, Embrace, were all favorites in high school. Glenn Donaldson and I went to high school together and he was real hip to that stuff, he tipped me off to a lot of good music and we went to a lot of shows back then. I was big on the Minneapolis stuff too, the Replacements and all that. Later we found the Fall and the Birthday Party. That was the era, man.
Do you see noise as an musical instrument, a mood, or a system?
I guess we have to sort of define what noise is because one man’s noise is another man’s butter or something like that. I think what you’re getting at is sort of noise as opposed to noisy: “Metal Machine Music” or maybe how people tend to define Merzbow, or even say Keiji Haino’s hurdy gurdy discs—a sort of general electric cacophony. And that stuff’s great. I’m not so sure I use much of it as a general component of my own music though…although I suppose it’s in some of the Ulaan Khol stuff and sprinkled here and there in the others, but I generally don’t think of my music in that way. I really just see it as just another sound, the same as an A minor chord. Even when it’s something totally un-musical it still has to relate to the tonal center of the song, it still relates to it either in sympathy or in dissonance, depending on what you want. So it’s not really anything but another color on the palate that I might use. I like fuzz pedals and I like distortion and enjoy how different instruments and sounds get mixed up in that swamp. It’s just another sound and, like the A minor chord, these things give way to a sort of mood.
I just see sound and notes and chords, all of it, as degrees of dissonance and consonance. It’s a gray area really, and I’ll use a recording of a car engine sent through a fuzz pedal if that’s what works or I’ll play the prettiest chord I can muster on a piano if that’s what I need. But I don’t see noise as any more or less than that. I’m just referring to my own way of approaching it, of course. I’m sure there are artists that might view noise as a whole system to work within. I mentioned Merzbow, he’s like the archetypal noise artist, maybe he sees his own music in this way. I’m probably mis-attributing this to him, but I thought I read something where he said as a kid the only parts of rock songs he liked were the big endings, the big crescendos at the end where all the instruments tend to let go and collide together. The noisy parts, which I admit are often the best part. He just wanted to take that one moment and stretch it out. That’s a beautiful thought.
Do you think of yourself more as a composer than a song writer?
Oh, definitely just a song writer, or even more lowly, just a rock musician. Ouch, the lowest of the low. But really, “composer” just seems to imply that I know what I’m doing. It’s a bit pretentious as well. Even though we can bandy all these different influences and artists about, just because I like Morton Feldman and Arvo Part, and people like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, and traditional folk music from Eastern Europe, and all of these different things that have been very influential and have definitely changed the way I make music, I still see whatever I do within the frame of rock music. It’s how I first became attracted to music and it’s always the context from which I view what I do.
How did you get involved with the Jewelled Antler Collective?
I moved away from San Francisco about 1999 or 2000 and the Jewelled Antler stuff didn’t really get moving until a little after that so my take on it all is sort of from a distance. Obviously, I am in Thuja and so on, but when I think of Jewelled Antler I think of Glenn and Loren and their label and all the great music they released—an awful lot of stuff in a short period of time, very prolific time for them. To me, it was my friends’ cool label. I wanted to be a part of it. They put out my solo record “Kohl” and the Hala Strana record “Fielding”, two of my best records really and we did awesome packaging with it. Really good times, I was so proud of those releases, and still am. I guess Jewelled Antler grew into sort of a whole community, and they were forming all these different bands and a whole aesthetic came from that. It formed an umbrella to put all these groups together. But to me, it was always just a way to do stuff with my friends. I can’t even keep track of all the groups they formed. And then of course it sort of blossomed and collaborations were done between other musicians from all over the place. It was a good moment in time and luckily, a lot of it was put on tape and released.
It's amazing that rock has become a palette for an incredible diversity of sound. What do you think it is about the genre that makes it so open to so much experimentation?
Interesting question. I don’t really know, but I’ll hazard a guess and say it might have something to do with the fact that rock music is the first genre, or at least one of the first genres, where electricity and volume were crucial to its definition. I mean, you have jazz and blues and folk and all that came up from and out of an acoustic situation and tradition and then maybe it went a little electric much later in the genre’s life. But rock, possibly by its own definition, or one of its definitions, is electric -- and rude, and loud. It’s electric, it’s based on electricity. And an electric guitar doesn’t, or at times, doesn’t sound like an acoustic guitar at all, it’s something else entirely. And once it’s electric, it can be tweaked and changed and morphed into different things really easily. It can accommodate outside influence really well. Of course, we now have electronic music and hip hop and so forth that are almost wholly electric based, but those genres also have a huge diversity of sound and have swallowed up other influences too, maybe rivaling rock music. I think a large part is electricity. There’s only so much you can do with an acoustic instrument to alter its sound, but an electric guitar -- shit, it’s all over the place.
Are there particular outdoor places that are important inspirations for you?
I certainly enjoy the deserts down here in Southern California and love the redwood forests of Northern California, in fact I’m trying to get up to Big Sur soon. But I’ve always sort of been more of a city person. I don’t know how much any of that has to do with the music I make. I mean, it must, these places stir something in you and so I guess it finds its way in. But I’ve never recorded music out in the woods, or in a cave or wherever. Some of the Jewelled Antler groups have done that, I think the Blithe Sons and some others, but I wasn’t in those groups. Thuja has done some performances and recordings outdoors but it has usually been in Rob’s backyard greenhouse, at least when I was around. And Thuja also recorded just as often in Rob’s garage and his old warehouse space. I’ve done field recordings for the Hala Strana stuff, but my field recordings, and this will tell you something, were done by walking around the city recording train stations, church bells, footsteps on a brick path, street corners, crowds, cars, etc… not out recording in an open field or by the shore. I’m not belittling that method, not at all, it just isn’t for me. I’m more comfortable recording my own music in studios or in houses, my own house usually. I’d like to take some mics and a tape machine out to somewhere more acoustically interesting, but by this I mean something more like a church or a house with large rooms and wood floors instead of my dusty cement bunker I call a studio.
Who are you listening to now that you think more people should know about?
Oh man, it’s a bit of a dry spell, so I don’t have any really great secrets. I just bought both the new Blues Control lp and “Box of Birch” by A Broken Consort and I’ve been enjoying both of those. I really loved the Blackout Beach record “Skin of Evil” that came out earlier this year. I don’t know why that didn’t get more attention, I thought that was a really great piece of work. I bought the Obits record which I liked, saw them play recently too. I just saw that Scott Walker documentary (30 Century Man) and I thought that was pretty cool. Boy, it seems like he struggles a lot to get that music out of him. I find that to be some really inspiring stuff. I picked up some La Dusseldorf reissues recently. Nice to hear those. I’ve also been re-assessing Jethro Tull [!] so take this for what you will.
Can you tell me a little bit about future projects, either music or art?
There’s some stuff in the pipeline waiting to be released: there’s a solo LP called Cities that will actually be out in a couple of weeks and I’m excited about that. There’s a second LP that I did with Gareth Davis that should be coming out later in the year. The last part of the Ceremony series for Ulaan Khol has been done for some time, we’re just getting the art and packaging together so hopefully that will be out toward the end of the year as well. It’s been a busy year. And I have a couple ideas floating around for what I want to do next, so we’ll see.