Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Herbcraft

I’m on a quest to find good psychedelic music, and one of my favorite recent discoveries is Herbcraft Discovers the Bitter Water of Agartha by Herbcraft. It’s advertised as a long lost a concept album from 1973 and it looks the part; the cover is beige with a hazy tri-tone photo of a bearded man with glasses. It’s framed inside a peace symbol adorned with a snake, stars and a total eclipse of the sun, and the title appears on the back in a font they used all the time back then. The story fits the genre, too; Admiral Richard E. Byrd journeys to the center of the earth, drinks the bitter water, and discovers mysterious beings who tell him they must destroy the human race before we destroy the earth. It’s even got a bummer ending, like a lot of the movies from the early 70s, but I won’t spoil it for you.
The music, on the other hand, is a little trickier to match up to the early 70s. For instance, there are no drums on the Herbcraft album. It’s all bass notes and overlapping guitars, layers of them, sparkling with cheap-electric-guitar fuzz and crisscrossing across one another, weaving in and out of riffs that will seem vaguely familiar to anyone whose listened to a lot of AOR. In fact, there’s a passage halfway through side two that is a spot-on garage-band take on the four-dimensional outer-space spider sounds Garcia made with a wa-wa when the Dead performed “Dark Star” and “The Other One” from 1972 to 1974. Only for a moment though, then it becomes its own thing before coming back again, very briefly, right before the last song, in the part where the human race is doomed. The lyrics are printed on the back in white on black, and you have to read along if you want to follow the story because the vocals are distant and full of echoes, thoroughly unintelligible, at times unstable, like electric liquid.
I poked around on the Internet and found out that Herbcraft is a one-man-band, and Agartha was written, performed and produced by a man from Portland, Maine, named Matt Lajoie. He was, or might still be, a member of a band called Cursillistas. In a recent interview, he said he conceived and completed the entire album in a 24-hour stretch “on a borrowed thrift store electric guitar and broken microphone.” It doesn’t sound hastily made at all. It’s more like it’s intentionally raw, yet meticulously planned out, with a sturdy, logical overall structure. And, of course, all kinds of freaky feedback and pedal effects that rank high on the Cosmometer.
Herbcraft’s second album, Ashram To the Stars, came out in June, and it’s one of my early picks for best records of the year. The sound is much fuller than Agartha, and the structure’s less linear; less a story and more like a place, or a space, or a series of spaces for the listener to drift through. The vocals are distant and fuzzed out, like vibrations from a spirit floating on the edge of beyond, and the guitar work is so densely layered that I keep hearing new sounds in it, even after several dozen listens. It’s like drifting through zones of guitar energy, and continually getting somewhere I’ve never been.
The cool thing about the current music is that it carries a lot of vestiges of the old punk scene when you could pick up a copy of Maximum Rock and Roll and find your favorite bands’ phone numbers and give them a call, except now it’s spread across an infinite number of genres. So I found Lajoie through his record label and asked if he’d talk to me for an article. He sent me a copy of Ashram and he spent some real time and thought into answering my questions, offering a fascinating glimpse into how Herbcraft’s music is made, as well as the exciting news that he’s at work on album number three, and there are big changes in the works.

Could you kind of walk me through the 24-hour period you spent creating Herbcraft Discovers the Bitter Waters of Agartha? What was the weather like? How did it all come together? Did you stop to eat? Seriously, it’s a remarkable work of art, and I’m curious to know what such an intense session of creative outpouring is like?

I believe it was December 21st, cold in Maine, of course, maybe snowing, though I don't think I even looked outside all day. I woke up that morning in the room I was crashing in after returning from Cursillistas tour; my bandmate and girlfriend Dawn had just left for the west coast and I wasn't sure where to go next, I had no job and no home. While on tour she told me about Admiral Byrd's journey to Agartha, and I'd done a little research about it online while on the road, and it must have seeped into my subconscious. It somehow combined with the chapter I'd read recently from Hank Harrison's book The Dead where he talked about the Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra, a group and concept I was obsessed with at the time (I'd been loving David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name and had just picked up Blows Against The Empire). So the last dream image I remember before fully waking up that morning was of a 1973 private press LP that was a concept album about Byrd's trip to Agartha by the Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra. I spent the morning doing more research, writing lyrics and plotting out the story via track titles, getting fully caffeinated. I wanted to finish it in time to be a Christmas present to Dawn; initially I really didn't intend for it to be a widely-released album.
Around noon I picked up the guitar and didn't stop working until I went to sleep late that night. (I probably stopped to eat something at some point but I really don't remember.) The album was recorded in order, because I wanted to make sure it flowed naturally. So "Road To Agartha" was the first song I wrote, then "Dark Deities," and so on. It seemed to make the most sense to work on it that way. I would lay down a basic guitar line first, then try out a vocal over it, and keep building till it sounded finished.
In the early evening I emerged from the room with half an album and shared what I was working on with my housemates. It was in conversation with them that Herbcraft was tossed around as a possible band name. One housemate suggested I try an all-vocal track to start the B-side, a-la David Crosby, and that became "Many Dark Ages." Another suggested closing with a "Recife lullaby", and that's how "No Hope For Mankind" turned out like a tribute to Marconi Notaro. Between those two I sort of ambled on an improvised guitar and vocal jam that I felt went on way too long, and planned on scrapping the next morning. But it turned out I really liked "Outward Journey" a lot more first thing in the morning, and spent the morning hours adding some overdubs to get it nice and thick. So around noon the next day I was finished recording. The mixing took another couple days.
Every guitar track on that album was the first take. I didn't re-record any guitar part and I never used more than 6 tracks on any song. I've heard people mention that they hear bass and acoustic guitars, but every guitar track was played on an electric guitar I borrowed from my housemate. I just EQ'ed it hard in the bass to approximate bass guitar and mic'ed it unplugged to make it sound like a thin acoustic. I still use that guitar for every Herbcraft show and most recordings, though on the more recent stuff I do play bass and 12-string acoustic as well.

Why the unhappy ending? (At least from the human perspective; from the earth’s, it might well be a happy one.)

I was just trying to stay true to the Admiral Byrd story, which ends with Byrd ordered by the Pentagon to keep what he learned about Agartha a secret. I was always surprised that this album was taken as a "blissed out" album... I intended for it to be dark! It's heavy subject matter. We live every day with the knowledge that we will destroy the Earth, it's just a matter of when and how. I don't think it's unhappy as much as it is realistic.

 In Agartha’s promo materials, there’s a nod to Paul Kantner’s Blows Against the Empire. What other cosmic concept albums would you recommend?

Walter Wegmuller's Tarot and Aphrodite's Child's 666 were the biggest inspirations in terms of carrying out a concept with total indulgence, and Tarot in particular has had a huge influence on Herbcraft's sonics. Far East Family Band's Parallel World is fantastic. Don't know if Ramases' Space Hymns counts as pure concept album, but it's definitely an album that revolves around a cosmic concept. Same with Sun Ra's Cosmos. All are essential to what Herbcraft is today.

There’s a passage halfway through side two that is a spot-on garage-band take on the four-dimensional outer-space spider sounds Garcia made with a wa-wa when the Dead performed “Dark Star” and “The Other One” from 1972 to 1974. Was this conscious? Or did his spirit just suddenly possess you?

Wow, that's amazing... I didn't actually dig into Dead bootlegs until months after I recorded Agartha, I probably hadn't even heard either of those songs at that point. I was a much bigger fan of Workingman's Dead at the time and Jerry's work on the Crosby album, it took awhile to get into the deeper jams. I love his playing but I wouldn't say it's a huge influence, though there are times the full-band version of Herbcraft is jamming on something and I'll say I want it to sound like "the 35th minute of 'Dark Star'"... that's sort of my shorthand for riding out a totally unchained guitar odyssey.

Who are your guitar gods?

Eddie Hazel, Doueh, Lula Cortes, Takashi Mizutani, Hendrix, John Fogerty, Neil Young, Manuel Gottsching, Sandy Bull, Tom Carter, and to some extent Lindsey Buckingham and Tony Iommi. I'm generally much more impressed by guitarists who destroy any reasonable expectations for what a guitar should be playing than guitarists who can play a million notes a minute or are strictly melodic.

What are the biggest differences and similarities between Agartha and Ashram to the Stars, both in how they came to be and how they sound?

The major difference in sound on the new album comes from the fact that I used bass guitar, 12-string acoustic, dilruba, and lots of percussion implements on Ashram, so it sounds a lot more aurally full-spectrum. There's a definite depth and warmth to it that I felt was a bit lacking in Agartha. I guess the biggest similarity is that I stuck to first takes for all the tracks, so there's a definite improvisational feel to it. I recorded the entire first side of Ashram in a single sitting, starting with a 22-minute guitar improv, then starting the track over again from the beginning and piling on layer-by-layer. The vocals on the new album are much more minimal, sort of focusing more on spoken word and chants rather than melodies. I was getting deep into instrumental kosmische and Japanese psych at the time, so I was much more interested in laying down hypnotic grooves and throwing ribbons of improvised guitar leads across the scene than getting into some sort of verse structure. Then I would sort of rap or chant over that... the People album Ceremony~Buddha Meet Rock was a huge influence on this album.

Could you talk some about the spiritual dimensions to this new album? Did you perform rituals as you coaxed it into to exist, the way you’re known to do during live performances?

Since I rely so heavily on improvisation for all recording and performances, there's a sort of trance-state that has to come over me for any of it to work. Especially on the new album, there wasn't so much "songwriting" as "song-manifesting"... "Coaxing it into existence" is actually a perfect way to describe it, that's why on the record sleeve I only credited myself as "producer." The album's themes were greatly influenced by the writings of Aleister Crowley and Alan Watts. I wanted the record to sound like a sacred text, serious and heavy and with some kind of purpose, almost ceremonial, and all the spoken word sections and sung lyrics are intended to be sermons and mantras, respectively, but buried so that they're like subliminal messages. All the words came up spontaneously in the moment while the tape was rolling, I didn't write anything down before recording, so I had to go back and listen close to what I was saying in order to do vocal overdubs later on. I only record when I'm moved to, so for this record I would explore an esoteric concept for a few days and whenever the time felt right I would pick up the guitar and hit record. I don't really have a set ritual except for lighting incense, usually frankincense and myrrh. Those two scents in particular bring me into a most ceremonial and sacred space. "Mass" was a bit more intentional - lighting candles and meditating and letting a drone run for awhile before I started recording. Like with the live setting, the preparations are mostly necessary to get me comfortable enough to go as far out as possible while still being tethered.

What are you hoping people will feel while they’re listening to it, and after?

That's a tough one to answer... I feel like any honest, genuine reaction to it is great. I don't expect it to be everybody's trip, but my responsibility as an artist is to give the most honest representation of the sounds and words that moved me to record this particular album. The next one will be wildly different; Ashram is really a snapshot of a particular frame of mind I was in when I recorded it last summer and fall. It made complete sense to me back then, and now that I've had a little distance from it it definitely feels like it was something that "happened," rather than something that was worked on. The reaction that would impress me the most would be if it inspired the listener to get out of that everyday work consciousness and open up to a more spontaneous, improvisational experience, because that's where I was at when I recorded it.

Tell me about your label, L'animaux Tryst. What makes it unique? 

The label exists as a small-scale way for me to disperse music I love from Maine's sub-underground to interested heads throughout the world. It's purely a seed-scattering mission, trying to use the networks available to get this music (that doesn't have much of an audience locally due to its loose or experimental nature) out to people who care, and to hopefully help move those artists on to a bigger label the next time around. We do mostly limited edition cassette releases, often handmade packaging or hand-painted cassettes. Not that these things are all that unique in the underground cassette label world, but the focus on Maine artists is unique in a way.

In a recent interview, you mentioned your “artistic/philosophical choice to release music on vinyl and cassette.” Could you elaborate on that? Why are these formats important?

I can't imagine any artist who cares about their work wanting it to be reduced to a 1-inch jpeg and arbitrarily compressed mp3 files. I can't tell you how many albums have felt slight to me when I first heard them on mp3 but turned out to be revelatory when they were in-hand and under-needle. I feel like the current thirst of the listening public for devouring and excreting digital files with alarming speed is a true dark age for art. I have no problem with someone wanting to preview an album before deciding if they want to buy it - we all do that at record shops from time-to-time - but to judge an album entirely on what is the most soulless, empty, anti-artistic format possible is a crime. There's a warmth, depth, and soul in vinyl records, which gives them an unmistakably human element. LPs can't be so easily parsed out into tracks, you drop the needle and you're probably not getting up until the side's over. Because I spend so much time working on track order and pacing a record to flow over its duration, the thought of someone just listening to a single mp3 out-of-context bothers me... this is also why cassettes appeal to me, as they are essentially the more-portable version of LPs, with the warm analog presence intact. This is all besides the more basic point that they just SOUND better, and they're a real thing you can hold in your hand and treasure. You can't treasure an mp3.

I’m on a quest to find amazing psychedelic music. Where would you suggest I look?

Julian Cope has been an essential guide for me, not only his Krautrocksampler and Japrocksampler but his Head Heritage website. Beyond that, I've discovered many a gem thanks to Terrascope's list of Terrascopic Music and just by the good luck of having friends who dig deep and have a vast knowledge of the 60s & 70s underground.

What’s next?

Right now Herbcraft is in the middle of recording and mixing our first full-band album. We're recording all live to 8-track reel-to-reel, and it's exciting to be working on a record that doesn't sound like one guy overdubbing in a bedroom. It's more like I always wanted to sound. We're going to play some shows to promote the Ashram to the Stars album throughout the summer and fall while working on this new record.

- Joe Miller

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