THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 074
Good day to you, dear subscribers. I hope you are doing well. I'm sitting in my home office looking at lovely winter weather through my window and listening to a home recorded cassette I found today of "Song's + Memories of Yester Years" recorded by Ron Blackburn Sr. in 1991 using harmonica, Yamaha organ, Omnichord, and accordion. It is a chintzy little treasure.
Today you'll find my attempt to grease the wheels of this concert ticket giveaway I've been speaking of these past two weeks by way of an interview with two of the members of Old Time Relijun. If you and a friend would like to see the band play a rare show in Portland on February 17 at Holocene, let me know! I have two tickets to giveaway and I'd love to give them away to one of you. Read the interview first. I loved every moment of our winding and fearless and funny conversation.
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Talk to you on the other side.
Old Time Relijun
I want to put forth the argument that Old Time Relijun is one of the great American rock bands, but I find myself stuck on exactly what a "great American rock band" is. What are the constituent elements that codify a band in such a way, other than its members — singer/multi-instrumentalist Arrington de Dionyso, bassist Aaron Hartman, and drummer A. Walker Spring — all live in and around the Northwestern U.S. Beyond that, there's nothing uniquely American about them. Their sound is built from the foundational stuff of rock music (blues, jazz, hillbilly, folk) but wedged within it are more global influences like Tuvan throat singing, the desert blues of West Africa, trance-inducing rhythms from Africa and the Middle East, and dub reggae. That has resulted in nine full-length albums of lurching, danceable grooves, unbound vocal performances from band leader Arrington de Dionyso, and an alluring blend of the spiritual and the sensual, the pious and the sacrilegious.
Instead, let's just focus on the simple truth that OTR would be great no matter where they called home. The group has been one of the most consistent and brilliant acts to emerge from Olympia, Washington scene. They've let their music develop naturally and carefully with de Dionyso's varied interests in world cultures having an impact on their work over the years and the depth of their material growing and evolving along with subsequent changes in recording technology. Their latest full-length Musicking is the next logical step in their creative progression with dense, psychedelic throwdowns like "Life Drawing" and "Left Hand Shake" that heave and funk with precision and fury. This is music to topple ivory towers and rally the activist army with, or, at the very least, soundtrack the party that we'll throw atop the ashes of a million cryptocurrency hard drives.
As I like to ask everyone at the outset of these interviews lately, how have you two been holding up through these past couple of years of insanity?
Aaron Hartman: I don't really know my answer. As people we've been doing this separately, and as a musical group and collaboration. We made a record in the newfangled way of sending each other parts on the Internet. Emailing each other files. That's how we kept it together. "How you made it through the pandemic" ... that's a pretty long conversation, I think.
Arrington de Dionyso: I did lots and lots of hallucinogens. Mostly mushrooms but a little LSD throw in there just to balance things out. Pretty regularly. Every two or three weeks or so through the initial worst part of the pandemic. I work full time now and that's a totally different thing. We're doing a show in Portland and that's a different thing. We haven't played a show in Portland since 2018.
AH: Very rare, for sure.
You've more than likely taken psychedelics before but why did this become a regular thing for you during this period?
AD: I don't want to offend anyone out there who has had an absolutely terrible time, but in the midst of the pandemic and everything being awful, it was an incredible opportunity for introspection. Reconciling your personal history and the sort of inherited cultural distress patterns that we're all dealing with based on our family identities and our grandparents and our great-great grandparents and our great-great-great grandparents. This time of having nothing else to do was an amazing way to focus on all those things you don't really think about that much during normal circumstances.
That's true. I know a lot of people, myself included, that started doing therapy during this time.
AD: Yeah, yeah. Same thing but different. It's a process.
AH: Some people made sourdough. Other people used different kinds of spores.
Even before everything shut down, you both returned to this project after a long hiatus. How was it then to return to Old Time Relijun and to record and play together again? Had your relationship as people and musicians changed considerably during that break?
AH: It's funny. It feels like we're exactly the same people that we were when we first started playing with each other in our early 20s. And also super different. Our lives are 100% different than they were back when we were in college and had no responsibilities. You could do whatever and live that life. Well, first of all, we are now playing with a newer drummer so our rehearsals were us getting up to speed. When we got back together a few years ago, we hadn't been in the same room as a band in seven years at that point. I remember we gathered in my basement and we were kind of like, "What are we gonna do?" We fumbled around with our instruments and ended up playing 20 songs in a row without stopping. I mean, we didn't play them well, but the muscle memory was there. And it was so fucking fun to play these songs with these people. So we're at a little bit of a different place, life-wise, but as a band, I feel like there's something... it's like Arrington and I are like puzzle pieces that fit together in this musical way that just works. I don't know why.
AD: I agree. It's very natural. I mean, Old Time Relijun is the first band I was ever really in. Obviously, it was put together to become a vehicle for some songs that I had written before. Once we started playing together as an ensemble, there was a legacy of songs that were created in that process. For the longest time, any song that I wrote was automatically an Old Time Relijun song. During our hiatus after 2008, it was really the first time since 1995 that I was writing material that wasn't Old Time Relijun material. It was just a necessity at that juncture. We were all living in different cities and we all had different life circumstances happening round the same time. We would call each other up every few months or so and be like, "When should we start getting another tour together?" You get to a point where it's just not in the cards for a while. I don't think any of us expected that it would be that many years without playing. When we got back together it was very, very natural. It was like a family reunion.
AH: I learned how to play upright bass basically to be in Old Time Relijun. I basically learned how to play to the style of the band. It was all built around each other. That's still how I play. People think if you play upright bass, "Oh, you must play jazz or rockabilly." No, I play like this. Like, if you want me, this is what I can do: variations of the Old Time Relijun bass playing style.
As you came back to the project and were writing for Old Time Relijun again, did you feel the music changing in some ways because of influences you picked up during your hiatus?
AD: In the intervening years, I did a lot of musical traveling. I went over to Asia five or six times and worked with a lot of musicians out there. I've been to Morocco to play with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. I went to Tuva in 2019 and played with a lot of musicians out there. So, you know... I think even back in the original OTR lineup, we would bring whatever we were listening to at the time to rehearsal and be like, "Hey, what do you think about this?" We might be listening to jazz or Jad Fair. The result was never trying to sound like any of the things that we would bring in at all. I don't think we were technically capable of imitating anyone else anyway. It would be capturing the spirit or sensibility. A lot of times I remember Aaron bringing in some rhythm & blues or soul song, and it would have nothing to do with the song itself. He would be more like, "Hey, listen to the way the singer keeps singing and the drums drop out for a minute. Then when the drums come back in, the horns also come in at the same time." Things like that. The structural nuances that, unless someone pointed out to you, you could hear the same song 100 ties and not really think like, "Oh yeah, that's what makes a song exciting." And you could take that idea and apply it to this totally messy, skronky kind of punk-ish thing that we're doing. Of course, it's not going to sound anything at all like what we're culling from as an influence. And it becomes so disguised that it's not really even an influence.
AH: And while we're working stuff out, there's something innate where you're like, "No, that was lame. Let's try it again in a different way." Then we all know when it's no longer lame. That moment where it's like, "This works." And for whatever reason, what works for us wouldn't work for other bands. We knew when we got the point of getting it right for us. It's not random. There's a lot of work that goes into finding that space.
You mentioned that making Musicking involved sending one another files and ideas online. How was that process for you? Was that a comfortable thing to get into?
AD: It was kind of grueling.
AH: I was going to say brutal.
AD: Yeah, it was a pretty violent process in some ways. Aaron and I were both desiring to make a really amazing album, but our levels of desire for working on it at a given time weren't necessarily happening at the same time. Sometimes Aaron would be texting me in the middle of the night or early in the morning like, "Hey, I sent you these bass lines a couple of weeks ago, have you written words yet? Have you put guitar on it?" I was in the depths of pandemic apocalypse and, of course, being in Olympia, we were having a lot of political activity happening in the streets. That was a thing that was really bugging at me at the time and taking up a lot of attention because you couldn't really turn away from it. Then I might be working on lyrics or things on my own time and then not hear back from Aaron when he was on a trip with the family and things like that. There was a lot of push and pull. Then it just sort of came together and we had enough songs to release an album. It was, I would say, our most difficult record to create, by far.
AH: I think most rock bands benefit from being in the room together. Because neither of us are composing. That's not how it works. Like I was saying before, we sort of knock stuff out and figure out what works. But then we had to have an email thread. It was a really different way of communicating. We were doing this all on our own. Recording at our houses. Arrington would come down to Portland to record at my house everyone once in a while.
AD: Once there were tests. It wasn't until they had a COVID test that I would come down to do those vocal tracks. We had... how many months of not seeing each other in person at all?
AH: And there's no way of doing these big communications through emails and texts and everything else without it feeling business-like. When you're making a record, you go back and forth and you figure out what's working. And most of them don't work and you're trying figuring out what does. It's a much more painful process when we weren't in the room together. But as the album and each song was coming into focus, it was insane because the same feeling would happen. I don't know what a good metaphor would be. It's like when you're doing a dot-to-dot and all of the sudden it's a dog face. "Oh that's the song. That's the sound of it. That's how it is."
AD: The other thought that I was having — a recurring thought during the process of recording — I feel like Musicking and the songs therein are really born out of a different kind of searching than what we'd done previously as a band. A really big part of the creative drive behind making this album was asking ourselves, "What is the motivation for making this album?" Throughout this entire time, I'd been recording music by myself. I'd been going to empty spaces outside and just playing outside. I was making music for myself. But then if we're never gonna play a show in front of people and people are going to be able to dance or people aren't going to be able to drip the sweat from their bodies while dancing and not worry about where their sweat falls on the ground or on the person next to them, or if we're all sharing the same breath in tightly enclosed basements with a bunch of kids, we have to completely re-evaluate the entire thing. Why does it exist? What is it and why? Why make rock 'n' roll? Rock 'n' roll, for me, is about getting people to dance and move close to each other. It's about sweat. It's about a room full of people having that certain smell together. It's a visceral experience, and it's nothing something I want coming out of little headphones and speakers. Everything that's great about this record is born from that. That yearning, searching, "what the fuck is this all about anyway?" And finding something beautiful in it.
AH: We just came back a couple of months ago from a tour in Europe, which is it's own kind of insanity. There's a lot of rooms where people weren't wearing masks, so it was this whole kind of familiar but really bizarre environment. But our second to last show was in Paris, and the stage was maybe six inches off the ground. People were pressed right up against us. During our set, there was a young man and a young woman sort of near the front, and I watched them move towards each other during our set. Closer and closer. By the second to last song, they were making out. It was the coolest and weirdest thing to be part of. It just felt like there was some magic that was happening. I mean, maybe they would have made out anyway but it felt like we were there for a reason.
How was that for you to navigate a tour of Europe during this time with restrictions changing from country to country?
AD: For almost every possible reason you could think of, that tour probably shouldn't have happened. The tour had been organized and canceled three separate times. With a very courageous and professional booking agency and with the contracts, they were able to renew these shows three separate times with most of the venues. There were some shows that couldn't be rescheduled, but most of the places we played were places that had been set up for us in March of 2020. A friend of mine who was our very first drummer — he now lives in Germany — he drove up to Brussels to see us play. He was watching the news and watching our tour schedule in each country that were playing and he said that for four or five days in a row, each country we were in announced a new shutdown the day after we left that particular country. Bryce sent me a message and was like, "You guys are like Indiana Jones escaping from the Temple of Doom. There's this giant ball rolling down to crush you and the walls are falling down and somehow you're getting out."
AH: We played one venue where they said, "This is the first show we've had in 20 months." And the next night we played, they would say, "This is the last show we're going to have for three or four weeks." It was random. I feel like in my life that's not usually the luck that I've been having. But somehow were able to squeak by and play every single one of our shows. 26 shows in 28 days.
AD: It's literally a miracle. Any one of those dates... if that particular date had been scheduled one week before or one week after, or in some cases the day after, there would have been a whole string of cancellations.
AH: And there were some places like England, had no COVID restrictions at all, and it was really bad to be in a totally ventless room in London with not a mask to be seen. There were definitely some times where it was like, "What is happening?" But, you know, we were definitely in a high risk situation ourselves, but that's what we signed up for.
To get back to Musicking, I love the production of the album and your previous records. Especially this new one, it feels as if every detail is so precisely placed and there these amazing mixing decisions that got made. I know you recorded this yourselves, but brought in other folks to mix and master the album. Do you remain pretty hands on through each step of the process or do you have to walk away and let someone else take control?
AH: I was hands on for pretty much every note. I worked closely with the people who mixed it. Tons of back and forth. Because we recorded ourselves and we're not professional. It was definitely a lot of thought went into the chaos than is probably obvious.
With that, a question I ask a lot of artists and people who make music is: how do you know when a song is done? is there a point in the recording process where it finally feels like it is complete or is that a lingering issue even after your record is pressed and distributed?
AH: This is embarrassing to me, but basically if I can dance to it. I will dance through the entire mix and if it's not feeling right, that's how I know. Even like the weird noise and clarinet stuff, I'm still standing between the speakers moving around.
AD: I do something kind of similar.
AH: I know what your face looks like when you're listening to mixes.
AD: The thing is, we're gonna make an album that we want to listen to, right? You've got be able to listen to every single song over and over and over again, and at no point find something that's annoying or grating or, "Oh I wish we hadn't done that." You've gotta love every second of it. I want to make a record that I'm going to enjoy listening to and not skip any songs. We always have interesting conversations deciding on the order of the songs. "Oh, that's a good song, but that's like the first song on side two." "That was the last song on side one." We have these really long convoluted criteria that we go through to figure out the order of the presentation.
AH: With this one, you wanted to have one of the more esoteric songs as the first song, almost as like a test. Like, "Let's separate the normies from the rest." I was happy to come out on top of that particular discussion.
With the show coming up here in Portland, and even thinking of those dates in Europe, with such a sizable back catalog, is it difficult to put together a set list for any given show? Do you mainly concentrate on whatever is the latest album or do you wrestle with each other about what to play?
AD: It's kind of fan service in a way. We know what songs work best live, and we also, as a band, have benefited from a really... well... let me rephrase that. We have a really intimate relationship with our audience. So we kind of know what they want to hear. We like providing that. And we also find ways to challenge what their expectations might be at the same time. So our live set list is crafted around what really, really works in delivering the goods.
AH: It's crazy, but just last night someone from Olympia posted an entire Old Time Relijun show from 1995, and I hadn't seen us in that set in some time, and we're still playing a couple of of those songs. We had an album and a half's worth of songs that didn't make it on the first album. We have a lot of material that we've gone through and there's still a couple of super old songs that still kill for whatever reason. They're not boring to play even though they're super simple. I always get excited when they start. I think that might also be the answer to the question: What works for us. What is fun to put my fingers in the same place every time. Again, what makes me dance.
I'll end this on a fun note to ask what you are listening to or reading or watching these days?
AD: I still mostly listen to music and trance music and archival recordings of shamen in the Amazon and things like that. I don't pay tons of attention to any kind of commercially released, up to date contemporary recordings. For the most part. There's this Indonesian experimental band Senyawa that I have a really close relationship with. They put out an incredible record at the beginning of last year. I have a lot of love for what they're doing. But other than that... The people at my job... I work with a bunch of 25-year-olds and they have the worst fucking taste in music. Every fucking thing they put on sounds like a video game soundtrack.
AH: It might be!
AD: Yeah, probably.
What about you, Aaron?
AH: Music has been hard to listen to for the last few years. I haven't really been digging deep enough into the archives or contemporary world music. Making this Old Time Relijun record, I just listened to that over and over and over again as the songs were coming together. So now, when I listen to music, a lot of the time I have these background music records that I made just for myself. It's not exactly trance-y, but it's this droning music that has a lot going on, to sort of block out other sounds for whatever ADD reasons I may have to shut out the world. It's embarrassing but that's the most played thing that I have in my collection: me droning on. Which is, you know, a little bit masturbatory, but it works. That and the soundtrack to Encanto. Unfortunately with my kids they've been on a constant loop and... those fucking songs are just so... [sigh] like, I wake up in the middle of the night with those hooks in my brain and it's not cool. It's not cool at all.
[FILM] Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom (2019, dir. Pawo Choyning Dorji)
The selection of nominees for the Academy Award for Best International Feature is always marked by surprises with at least one film that seems to come from out of nowhere getting the nod thanks to some serious campaigning on behalf of the movie's country of origin. In the recent past, that has brought attention to work like Cristina Comencini's The Beast in the Heart and Paul Morrison's Solomon & Gaenor. This year's curveball is Lunana, a movie that the country of Bhutan already pushed as a potential nominee last year, and finally broke through. And it's not hard to understand why this film connected with voters. The story of a young man, in the last year of his national teaching service, taking a job in a remote village that's a six-day hike from the nearest town is filled with breathtaking images of the Himalayas and the lush landscapes surrounding the area and a story arc about a selfish, lazy sort learning the value of hard work and community with the help of an adorable crew of moppets all eager to soak up his teachings on English and math. The entire endeavor was custom built to tug on the heartstrings and charm the socks off of its viewers. It succeeds but just so, as the director skirts on the edge of cliche and comes dangerously close to overpouring the syrup. The film also dutifully avoids any scenes of the harsh winters these villagers face and any real mention of how the isolation of the village means that, should a serious illness or injury befall one of the residents, they likely wouldn't survive it. If you can cast that aside from your thinking, Lunana will draw out the kind of warm internal glow that cynical moviegoers like myself often deny ourselves. [available to rent or purchase through VOD outlets]
[FILM] Ronnie's (2020, dir. Oliver Murray)
If you're a jazz fan, you already know Ronnie Scott or at least know about the British saxophonist's titular nightclub. Originally opened in London's Soho neighborhood in 1959, the venue has been host to nearly ever major jazz artist — and even some rock musicians — of the past six decades. And many of them make appearances, through archival footage, in Oliver Murray's fine new documentary about Ronnie Scott's: Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Roland Kirk, and many more. This impressively researched film culls deeply from the archives to present the full picture of jazz's evolution throughout that period, from the hard be-bop that Scott and his friends turned to when they got frustrated with playing in dance bands to the modernist, broken beat that has taken over London in recent years. Murray stitches in tons of footage taken from Scott's own personal home movies and plenty of performance footage captured for TV and home video release. It's, at times, a dizzying spin through this period of history, but somehow manages to start to drag at about the hour mark just as voice over from Scott's former business and romantic partners paint a rather dark picture of the man. The club was often on the edge of insolvency due to Scott's squandering of funds through gambling and largesse, as well as his battles with depression. Murray and his team had to have had some sense of how those slower stretches played as they steer out of each lull with a head-snapping clip of Van Morrison performing "Send In The Clowns" with Chet Baker or the bootleg of Jimi Hendrix, on the last night he was alive, sitting in with Eric Burdon & War. A flawed yet still fantastic historical document. [screening at select theaters and on demand]
[ALBUM] Kill Alters: Armed To The Teeth L.M.O.M.M. (Hausu Mountain)
Bonnie Baxter has already amassed a stunning body of work that paints in various shades of sonic assault. Her work in Prolaps, her experimental electronic duo with Matt Stephenson, can be playful or funky or terrifying, and her solo efforts stretches into even more cartoonish territory. While Kill Alters, Baxter's trio with Nicos Kennedy and Hisham Bharoocha, dips into the same musical wells, it is without question her most emotionally affecting outlet. At the core of each release by this project are tapes Baxter's mother made to, in part, help her deal with her mental health issues. Though a treasure trove for a sound artist, these recordings also opened up some painful memories for Baxter, including being sexually assaulted as a child. Though the backstory feels important to relay, the discomforting qualities of the music comes across even without it. Each moment on the trio's new album peaks into the red, with Baxter dredging up a terrifying vocal performance on "Why Do You Scream" and the hip-hop-inspired tracks like "Dissect Me" and "Slow Heat" touched with piercing tones and thick industrial rhythms. And throughout, Baxter's mother appears, cutting through the digital fog of the record with moments that can be silly or plainly unsettling as she, too, screeches at the microphone looking for some kind of pressure release. At the right volume and in the right state of mind, it may do the same for you. [Bandcamp]
If you'd like to read more words from me, head over to Oregon Arts Watch where I put the spotlight on an amazing DIY venue here in Portland, or stop by Willamette Week where I wrote about... well... the same venue (before I knew it had a name) and talked up the city's amazing jazz scene.
If you have questions / comments / requests / complaints, do feel free to reply to this email and let me hear them. The feedback is always welcome. I'll be back on Monday for the paid subscribers, and on Friday for all y'all. Hoping to have another interview wrapped up by then, but may instead write up another Deeper Into Movies entry. We'll see how the week goes. Until then: Do no harm. Take no shit.
RIP Betty Davis, Ian McDonald, Lata Mangeshkar, and Dimzordimma.
Artwork for this edition of the newsletter is from Julia Rivera's recent exhibition Respira. Old Time Relijun photo by Alicia P. Rose