Ampeater Music

Welcome to Ampeater Music. You'll notice that we've totally stripped the design. We were getting tired of the old one, and the best way to force ourselves to fix it was to dive in head first. We've unpublished all our past posts, and we're starting at the beginning, revamping each entry one at a time. They'll all be back up on the site soon enough! In the meantime, we hope you'll take the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with our back catalog. We'll also be making incremental improvements to the look and functionality of our dear old Ampeater over the coming weeks and months. Please be patient, and stay tuned for some really cool stuff. It's coming, we promise.

AEM042 Order or Ardor

AEM042 Order or Ardor
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Personnel: Stuart Watson

My friend and musical companion Jeremy once gave me this advice when I told him I was having trouble writing songs: “Start with a philosophical concept and try to make the sound describe that concept.” It was an interesting, if startling method that I had never encountered before. Should music proceed from some base of an idea and build from there? Or do what we call “philosophical concepts” even have a place in music? Don’t we still put stock in the transcendence of the musical experience, in its absence of direct reference and metaphor? Only in a very restricted sense. As many worthwhile contemporary artists have proven, idea and form are mutually illuminating projects. One does not follow the other. They contain and advance each other.

And then there is the question of poetry. I mention poetry because it is so fine an example of how music is more complicated than we give it credit for when we examine it through a philosophical lens. How to delineate the spaces of music and language? How can we think of music as autonomous from “everyday experience” when its very essence is inscribed by Being, the most important entity in Heideggerian (and other influential) philosophy. Stuart Watson, who records under Order or Ardor, shows us how these issues must be met head on in music. His songs are the familiar imbued with a spiritual intensity that emits an inspiring radiance. Not only does Order or Ardor deal with “pure sound,” it deals with pure feeling, pure being and the dynamic play between those forces in carefully constructed auditory space. Watson is a towering intellect, so it comes as no surprise that his music deftly handles weighty themes while still remaining fun in sound.

Writes the man himself: “The band’s name is meant to evoke the Apollonian/Dionysian split described by Nietzsche in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. In this project I am attempting to harness both intensity of feeling and clarity of composition; I want there to be a dynamic, almost dialectical tension between the elements in the songs themselves. In certain instances, generally my more experimental pieces, ardor wins out over order, as it were, but in other cases, ecstatic energies are reined in and dominated by the “songness” of a piece–passion in the service of reason, order over ardor.

“Musically I draw on Neil Young as a kind of ethical center, while Johnny Cash and Ian Curtis have had the most direct influence on my singing. I have a background in jazz guitar and bass, and that in some measure informs the kinds of songs I write. Among contemporary artists I have the highest respect for Larkin Grimm, Woods, Dirty Projectors, and Animal Collective; these people are making music that inspires me on a daily basis. Philosophy and poetry inform my writing on account of my day gig as an adjunct professor and English PhD student, but I try to keep my songs as direct as possible lyrically. Simplicity of expression is something I value, as are emotional openness and honesty, and I try to make music that reflects that. I am a believer in the visionary and transforming power of love. I am also an adherent to rationality. These two elements come into conflict, hence the band name. These songs were recorded by me in my studio, Deep Dark Carlos. “Borderlands” is a meditation on change, on transformation, on traveling through liminal spaces. “How I Am Blind” is a coming to terms with failed love. Both songs represent a version of the balance of order and ardor in my life.”

On A-side “Borderlands,” the self-ascribed Ian Curtis influence rings true, but as with other bands who draw inspiration from the Joy Division frontman (Interpol comes to mind), Order or Ardor has something deeper below the surface. The synth textures call to mind the grooves of Brian Eno’s otherworldly masterpiece, Another Green World. There are also hints of the restless post-punk experimentalism of Xiu Xiu. The drum machine has that crisp analogue sound of New Order and other similar 80s New Wave bands (it is in fact the same drum machine used by New Order). One shouldn’t take this as an act of gearheadism. Rather, this points to one of the more distinguishing features of Order or Ardor’s music—that is, the sound space in itself. Watson happens to be an expert producer (full disclosure: He’s engineering and producing my new album) with an uncanny ear for mix, richness and instrumental clarity. It’s a rare thing to have a musician with battling talents in songwriting and production, although I suppose in the age of laptop studios it’s becoming increasingly common. But this is more than just some slapdash home recording experiment. It’s the continuation of a method made possible by home studio heads like This Heat and Phil Elverum. In other words, having New Order’s drum machine in your studio, if you’re not a jive fool, means incorporating a texture that has great meaning for you after years of listening. By entering that sound into the mix, Watson is participating actively in music history, recycling and readapting sounds to create new combinations. This is how music goes forward (I hesitate to use the word “progresses”) and creates a somewhat coherent narrative instead of little style islands, episodic flashes in a vacuum

But let’s not get bogged down in historical musicology. Though Order or Ardor certainly provides a platform for waxing philosophic (like all good music), it’s also about enjoyment. Take B-side “How I am Blind” which places us into poppier territory than does “Borderlands.” An Aphex Twin-reminiscent drumbeat and humming synthesizer provide the perfect background for Watson’s pleasantly simple guitar progression. However, the brighter the pop song, they say, the darker its demons. “I showed how I am blind” intones Watson, simultaneously deadpan and crushingly emotive. Sad dance!

Ultimately, if these songs prove anything, it’s the overwhelming and inescapable presence of feeling in music. Scoff if you will at the idea of philosophy in music, but both derive from two important sources: Being and Feeling.

AEM038 Little Women

AEM038 Little Women
  • Location: Brooklyn, NY
  • Personnel: Darius Jones (alto sax), Travis Laplante (tenor sax), Andrew Smiley (guitar), Jason Nazary (drums)

If I learned anything as an Anthropology major in college, it’s that when we speak of “human nature” we’re almost always talking about culture. Countless ideas and institutions deemed natural for the human spirit are in fact part of a complex web of learned vocabulary. Take the Western notions of consonance and dissonance, the supporting base of musical tonality. It is in no way apparent a priori that certain tone combinations are pleasing while others are unrefined or disagreeable. Clearly, tonality is as much a constructed system as ethics, something which is produced by (not before) human interaction and disseminated, with constant re-adaptations, from generation to generation. An invocation of the musical philosophy of John Cage is appropriate here: “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.” This quote has always haunted me because I think it penetrates the problem of the question of music. What is and is not music, the obsession with exclusionary division, has marked every stage of Western musical history. Combining Cage’s challenge of traditional aesthetic binaries (reflected in tonality’s consonance and dissonance) with the insights of anthropological thought, we see that the resolution of this historic problem is to nullify the binary by looking beyond our present cultural systems and imagining new systems awaiting to be forged. It shouldn’t be as scary as it sounds. As Cage puts it, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” Doesn’t the very health of our cultural spirit depend on an understanding of where we have been and where we can go? Are we to remain forever trapped in an outdated mode of thinking about sound? There are plenty of artists that understand this imperative, but the larger cultural landscape must recognize that sound is sound and must be reckoned with in any context.

Brooklyn’s Little Women understand the issues at stake here. The quartet, comprised of Darius Jones (alto saxophone), Jason Nazary (drums), Travis Laplante (tenor saxophone) and Andrew Smiley (guitar) deal in sounds that present a real challenge to traditional notions of beauty and pleasure. It takes about 1 second of listening to A-side “[1] Untitled” from the Teeth EP to hear what I mean. A waterfall of high-pitched shrapnel comes raining down without warning. The drummer sounds like a robotic octopus gone haywire. It’s not all sonic warfare here, however. About a minute in, some serious rhythmic unison interrupts the free-jazz tapestry being woven previously. Another minute goes by and suddenly the rhythm section has disappeared. We’re floating in a saxophone cloud assembled by Ornette Coleman’s long-lost evil brother. A roaring punk section rips us out of that zone. Proving that “out” music doesn’t necessarily mean pathological melody-aversion, the last few minutes of the song ride out on a pretty serious hum-dinger (well, before dissolving into another atonal freak-out at the end for good measure).

At this point, some of you faithful readers may be questioning my commitment to this Cagean Zen philosophy of “everything is beautiful.” After all, there are certainly some parts of the song we just listened to that would really stretch the essence of the word “beautiful.” Isn’t the point rather that ugliness has its place in music alongside its glorified Other? It’s important to remind ourselves here of the precarious nature of cultural ideals with large amounts of stock. Our theories of musicality and aural pleasure are like an anesthetizing distraction from all the directions we artists and art consumers have to choose from. Who said music had to be beautiful all the time? Or is there even a transformation effect, where beauty becomes displeasing and the base reclaims the upper hand? Walter Benjamin prophesied that man’s aesthetic telos was to find beauty in its own self-annihilation. The question then remains: Why can’t there be a place for the grating, the deranged, the violent in our musical universe?

As a perfect example of the grating, the deranged and the violent in music, let us now turn to Side-B “[4] Untitled” from the same EP. The song starts off with a dissonant (gotcha!) foghorn which at one point inexplicably begins dueling with bagpipes (not actually). After a minute or so of this raw bleating, the main event begins. Someone fingers a saxophone almost inaudibly while the remaining band members whimper into microphones like scared children. This continues until these grown men (not Little Women) are screaming like possessed lunatics. Then, they growl like animals and slowly die out. It’s sick, disturbing and incredibly powerful. I find the theatricality of this piece really interesting. It’s a forward-thinking composition that introduces new realms to me. If you find this stuff intolerable, I don’t blame you. But before you write it off as “unlistenable” or whatever, think about the language you’re using to describe these sounds. Think why you’re turned off by it and what this has to do with your learning of a certain system of musical signs. Invoking Cage again, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

AEM032 Dandelion Fiction

AEM032 Dandelion Fiction

The world of sound is a strange one, indeed. Think about it. We pay money to watch people make sounds. If people make really cool sounds, we pay more money. I’ve heard people make some pretty cool sounds in my day. But it’s all a hoax. I sincerely regret to inform you that the current sound world you inhabit is limited, a sham. After all, there’s a potentially infinite combination of sonic textures to be tapped. If it’s in the range of human hearing, we should be able to hear it. The problem, however, is that there’s a finite number of instruments in the world. The objects we have for realizing sound potential are inherently limited.

This is one of the many reasons why experimental instrument design is such a vital field in music. Instrument designers are like musical scientists, forging new vehicles for the manifestation of previously unimaginable timbres. If the potential sound world is limited, then there must be a whole range of textures waiting to be uncovered. Jon Scoville, in his introduction to Bart Hopkin’s useful Musical Instrument Design, waxes philosophic on the matter: “There is an ancient imperative lodged in our DNA which asks us to make music. Our intuitive understanding of being alive on this blue planet is most poetically expressed in our songs and dances. In our instinct to organize sound and movement we fully express both the ambiguities and certainties of life. Making the instruments that make the music that makes the soundtracks to our lives is one of the ways that we reconnect ourselves with the world and with our ancient heritage. Thus we join that long tradition of (mostly) unknown instrument makers who gave birth to drums, violins, lutes, bamboo zithers, steel drums, gamelan, and the countless other instruments that produce our planet’s songs and symphonies” (iii).

We can now add to that list the daxophone, a friction idiophone invented by German musician and typographer Hans Reichel. Pictured with Dandelion Fiction above, it’s essentially composed of a variety of thin wooden blades (or “tongues”) inserted into a wooden block, which is in turn amplified by small contact microphones. The tongues are then bowed with a horsehair bow and bent to alter pitch. Daniel Fishkin, the brains behind Dandelion Fiction, is one of the few daxophone players you will ever meet. He learned how to play and design this unique instrument under Mark Stewart, an instrument designer, founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and ensemble musician for Steve Reich and Arnold Dreyblatt. The sound of the daxophone can be accurately described as mammals mating (this could be why one of the songs on the 2008 Dandelion Fiction LP You’re A Strong One is called “Badger Thumpin’.”)

Check out A-side “Leg Shimmy” for a glimpse into the world of the daxophone. The instrument’s vocal quality is immediately apparent here, particularly in the song’s first few seconds where the pitches jump around so much as to sound like a muffled reproduction of a conversation. The track quickly settles into a fun little groove, proving that you can be on the cutting edge of 21st century music and still have a sense of humor. Towards the end of the song, a mysterious drone is introduced. Is it feedback? A tape? Frankly Mr. Shankly, it matters not. Sometimes the mystery of sound can be as important as the exact documentation of its production. This couldn’t be more true for the epic nightmare-techno of B-side “Unravel With Ease.” I could spend all week trying to figure out how all the sounds here were produced, but I’d rather let it pummel me with its Stravinksy-like syncopation and relentless pounding. There’s definitely something to letting the sounds occur without further investigation. The song’s directions are pretty clear.

Although the similarities between Dandelion Fiction and Animal Collective are scant, they have some interesting things to say on the topic of divulging sound information. Quoth Avey Tare: “Part of the mystery of a lot of the bands we like was their ability to create really special sonic environments. It was something that made us think and inspired us to make music of our own. If you just spend a lot of time telling, especially younger people, what you’re doing and how everything is done, you feel like you’re not going to push people to experiment on their own and try to figure things out on their own. And I think that’s another good thing about not saying what we’re doing all the time.” Indeed, if music and experimental instrument design are about discovery, then an element of mystery is the perfect catalyst for exploration. Keep us in the loop, I say, but not too close.

AEM028 Mount Eerie

AEM028 Mount Eerie
  • Personnel: Phil Elverum

When I was sixteen and at the height of my Microphones obsession, I saw Phil Elverum at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. [Ed.: Jake, why do all of your reviews start with an adolescent anecdote? Are you writing about music just to revisit your unspoiled youth? Jake: Um…Yes.] The set had all the familiar Microphones vibes: pseudo-mystical lyrical meanderings, fans sitting on stage, and endearingly mousy stage banter. The real surprise came when I asked Elverum to sign my journal. Rather than give me the minimum-effort John Hancock, he spent ten minutes drawing an enormous mountain towering over the clouds. “That’s Mount Eerie,” he said, pointing to the mountain, “and that’s the world.” No one, including Elverum, has unlocked the full significance of Mount Eerie the concept, but that hasn’t stopped him from delving deep into murky symbolism. Since that concert, the Microphones have ditched their original moniker for Mount Eerie, released Mount Eerie Pts. 6 and 7 as a sequel to the five-track Microphones swan song called—you guessed it—Mount Eerie. More recently, Elverum has been exploring the sounds of Norwegian Black Metal, an element once present in classic Microphones songs like “Samurai Sword,” now brought to the fore in albums like Black Wooden Ceiling Opening (2008) and, most recently, Wind’s Poem (2009). Elverum’s story is a familiar one. Music loving kid works in a record shop, starts playing around with recording equipment, records sloppy and earnest demos. The difference between Phil Elverum and other home recording artists, however, is that his recording projects eventually caught the attention of Calvin Johnson, founding member of Beat Happening and head of K records, during a brief stint in Olympia. Elverum was given access to Johnson’s famous Dub Narcotic studio where he began a long discography as The Microphones, including It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water (2000) and the seminal The Glow, pt. 2 (2001), the latter of which was recently treated to deluxe reissue. While The Glow, pt. 2 was and remains his most critically acclaimed album, 2004’s Mount Eerie unveiled the severest themes of Elverum’s imagination. Confronting death, rebirth, nature, and the universe, the album was an epic five-part opera set on Mount Eerie—a real mountain on Fidalgo island that looms over Elverum’s homebase in Anacortes, WA. It may have been unintelligible to those who’d been won by The Microphones’ more concise lo-fi folk statements; for others it represented the culmination of a genius’ lifelong meditation on the universe’s mysteries.

When I spoke to Elverum he was reluctant to embrace an overarching thematic interpretation of his music. “I guess it’s true that my songs can seem focused on nature, but it’s not intentional,” he said. “It’s just the world that makes sense to me. Maybe it had to do with growing up with my family and going on camping trips… But I’m really hesitant to talk about nature as this picturesque, separate place other than the world we live in. When I sing about nature, I feel like I’m trying to sing about the same world that we all live in and that there are these totally wild things that are totally natural that happen in our daily lives. It’s not like you live your life, and then you go on vacation to a beautiful place, and then come back to real life.”

After the heady explorations of Mount Eerie the album, The Microphones were reincarnated as Mount Eerie the band. It’s unclear what exactly prompted the name change. Of course, that element of mystery is a vital part of Elverum’s aesthetic language. “All of my stuff that I do I end up having not that much control over it. It just comes out, you know? So I can only look at it from the same perspective as you, like ‘oh well from this era there are a bunch of songs about this topic and from another era there are a bunch of songs about that.’” This might seem like a frustratingly lazy attempt at self-definition, but there’s something much deeper at play. “I kind of consider all of my songs to be part of one big project,” he explains. “Although some songs are little islands of their own, they don’t get touched once they’re done, most of them are just part of this larger conversation that I’m having with myself.” Rather than try to plot a grand aesthetic mission and force all his music into that mold, Elverum writes songs about life the way we actually live our lives—with great uncertainty and open senses.

That openness has recently pervaded the recording process. A-side “Lost Wisdom,” the eponymous track from Mount Eerie’s 2008 LP, was a spontaneous home-recording session with Julie and Fred Doiron of the influential Canadian outfit Eric’s Trip. “Well, we didn’t intend to record an album,” Elverum explained. “We were just casually recording these songs in my studio, for no reason. It was ambiguous what they were going to be used for.” Despite Elverum’s modest deferral to the forces of spontaneity and ambiguity, this song proves to be a mini-masterwork. Just dig the lyrics, which are so personal as to render personhood an uncanny specter: “My lost face in the mirror in the gas station/ Who are you but my face that I wake up with alone?”

B-side “Stone’s Ode” charts an epiphany at the foot of natural wonders. Suddenly, “life has new meaning. Alive, propped on bones, overwhelming feeling.” Sentiments like these abound in Elverum’s music, which seeks beauty in the self as much as it does in the wonder of our environment (broadly construed). It’s the mysterious alchemy of the personal and the universal that gives Mount Eerie its unfamiliar familiarity. Sometimes, magic. The great expanse of our senses induces a moment of spiritual clarity. The vessel of spirit, the self, becomes untenable, vaporous.

AEM023 Zeke Virant

AEM023 Zeke Virant

I first met Zeke Virant when I was living in the East Village after my first year of college. Virant was living nearby with a model who liked to cook biscuits and gravy. He would frequently pop over to my tiny sixth-floor walk up. We’d cram into the little bedroom I shared with a friend and play god knows what with a bass and 3 drums. Those were the days. Virant’s musical gifts were immediately apparent. He had an amazing ear for slinking bass lines and liked to play around with extended techniques (including, but not limited to playing the bass with a spoon). We only had a summer of musical interaction, but that was long enough for me to realize that I had encountered someone truly special.

Virant went on to study poetry and music at Bard college, a hotbed of young artistic activity along the Hudson. Under the tutelage of the formidable critic and composer Kyle Gann, among others, he developed some serious compositional chops, going on to write an absolutely killer opera (as he put it, “a chamber ensemble with chorus in a story-telling psychological thing opera” ) including the personae Peppermint Man, Shades McGlenn, and Shades’s band—The Wobbler (drums), The Doctor (guitar) and Taps Fahrenheit (bass). He also developed a killer work ethic. A friend once told me that Virant refused to party on a Friday night because he was reading about Mahler. “Why are you reading about Mahler,” my friend asked, “if you hate him so much?” “Because I hate him!” responded Mr. Virant.

The picture I’ve painted here might not match the accompanying musical material. In a way, however, the stylistic diversity (and sense of humor) on display here are an even further testament to Virant’s abilities. Take A-side “Baby, Don’t Cry,” a wonderful 50s-inflected ditty. Barely hanging together, admirably casual, it’s not unlike the booze-soaked tapes of Beck’s Mellow Gold or the psilocybin pastiche of Ween. Plus, you gotta love any song with enough vocal fuzz to make pipes sound like a synthesizer.

B-side “How Much Corn Can You Put Up Your Nose?” follows genre-hopping suit, this time venturing into the realm of kinky techno. The title is ridiculous, the lyrics are ridiculous (I bet you can guess them without even hearing the song), but the song avoids total silliness by virtue of its awesomeness. All in all, it’s a pretty inventive arrangement with crazy-sounding and hilarious acid synths. Outstanding!

Talking to Virant, I’m reminded of the avant-garde/pop, serious/kitsch dichotomies of Frank Zappa, a man who wrote songs about fellatio in Spanish and compositions conducted by Pierre Boulez in the same career. “I like to do a lot of different music, not styles (ain’t got none), but performance situations. Sometimes the garage-band rock band thing (The Triangle Goons), sometimes, sometimes I will dress up as an old burnout performer named Shades McGlenn and tell stories and sing songs. I was born in Georgia in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve been away from that long enough that it’s hard to claim I’m a “Southerner” in a musical sense. I mean, I like the Allman Brothers Band, but I sort of fucked that up by going to school, so of course, now I listen John Cage and Mozart a whole lot, too. I do a lot of writing because it’s supposed to be a whole lot of things working towards one goal. Prince and Jimmy Page are Prince and Led Zeppelin not because they just played guitar or wrote songs. Those motherfuckers put on makeup and dragon suits, spent years developing a personal style of recording their music and making a sound, AND they wrote and played the music to incorporate it all. So, what I’m trying to do is to try to figure out a way of incorporating poetry people would otherwise not read, with music people would not listen to, with a body that no one would desire, and work with it!”