Sense Delete - A Personal And Artistic Statement Of Sorts, With (Far Too Many) Digressions
Those of us who are fortunate enough to be the subject of critical and media attention from time to time often indulge in a small, apologetic expression of annoyance at being repeatedly asked the same questions, wearily responding to the same handful of familiar topics. My threshold for this repetition is much higher than that of many people, but recently its left me wondering if some sort of all-encompassing artistic statement might be warranted, pretension be damned. I’m not delusional enough to believe our audience is vast enough that anyone will ever read this document, but for my own satisfaction I’ve decided to offer something of a general overview of my artistic purposes here, what I’m inspired by and why, how I work and why I work the way I do. It’s meant to be tangential and scatterbrained, because that’s an apt reflection of my own sensibilities, which Pitchfork recently characterized as similar to that of a magpie, grabbing bits here and there of whatever catches my interest. I’m cursed with an orientation towards experiencing ‘everything’ possible while I’m alive, consuming as much and sampling as much of the world as can be managed. Cursed, as this can be exhausting and detrimental to other areas of my life that demand attention. Regardless, it’s who I am.
There are more than a few musicians by hobby or trade in my family, mostly guitarists, though I hadn’t considered picking up a guitar until I was seven, when my older cousin Ken Gustafson (later an amplifier repairman and music store owner) gifted me my first acoustic. Around ten, I pursued lessons from a stellar player named Greg Garstka, whose son Matt would one day become the drummer for Animals As Leaders. I learned to read music, but promptly forgot forever. By ten I was already learning almost everything by ear, able to listen to a song a few times and pick it out via trial-and-error until I had it memorized. By twelve or so I was playing pop-punk covers in a middle-school trio, but with few options in my teenage years, it wasn’t until college that I began to form bands. During the second wave of mid-00s indie, it was an incredibly exciting time to be a music fan and musician, even at the isolated mountain-hippie college I attended in western North Carolina. By the time I’d left school and relocated to the Durham/Chapel Hill area, I was playing indie and post-rock in further unsuccessful bands before deciding to abandon the concept of bands altogether. This is what eventually led to Lost Trail, an experimental collaboration with my wife, Denny, which became the expanded collective we call Nonconnah upon our relocation to Memphis, Tennessee in June of 2016.
I had to largely develop my own style as a guitarist. I have regrettably small hands, and so much of the fretboard acrobatics others prided themselves in were simply too physically uncomfortable for me to replicate. My first real musical obsession was early 60s surf instrumentals, those eerie minor-chord nocturnes drenched in spring reverb and tracked by one-and-done garage bands found on collections like the Cowabunga! box set. I still tend to think so much of our music is just surf music, slowed down and beat-less. It was this sense of the unreal, the implied vastness, that left a huge mark on my playing and listening. These dark spaces began to emerge through brighter spectrums when I discovered My Bloody Valentine, and Loveless, through their influence on another long-time favorite of mine, The Smashing Pumpkins. Blur’s 1999 masterpiece 13, also deserves a mention; listening with headphones, I remember having the sensation that I had been looking for this sort of sound all of my life, and hadn’t known it existed. Not just a sound, really, but all the sounds drawn in the margins, all the detail, entire sonic explosions disguised as an album. An unlikely obsession with Boards Of Canada gripped my circle of friends around this time as well, that same eerie atmosphere coupled with the emotionally-stirring. We’d park ourselves in the ‘haunted’ section of Nags Head Woods at midnight, turn the headlights off, and spook ourselves out to ‘Gyroscope’ or ’Khani Industries’ on repeat. That sense of shadowy mystery, and the way their fanbase pieced together clues from their music and artwork, was a revelation that remained me with ever since. I loved the Modest Mouse, Califone, and Neutral Milk Hotel records my friends brought over, but it was the albums with moments that scanned as atmospherically off that I gravitated towards. Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Set Fire To Flames were chief examples, with the use of dialogue samples, naturally-occurring sounds. Also M83’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, a record which will haunt me to my grave in the best possible way, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a beguiling but sometimes-sinister left turn from a band we thought we knew. The internet, namely Pitchfork in its infancy, opened up a new reality.
I had relocated with my family to coastal North Carolina at eleven, in 1995, and have been fully unable to leave the South since. I often tell interviewers that Nonconnah is very much a Southern band, that we wouldn’t sound the same if we made this music elsewhere, and it’s not hyperbole. The mysterious sense of double exposure in the South, the reckoning of a haunted past layered over with an almost desperately-insecure insistence on the new, is molecular to how we approach our art. In college, in those western North Carolina mountains, I also became immersed in old-time mountain culture, an inescapable aspect of life in that town and that region. Every Thursday the local community center hosted an open bluegrass jam. I’d watch 90 year olds who could barely see pick up banjos and immediately pluck out an agreed-upon standard with arthritic hands. That sense of near-spiritual musical community, and the sensation of that culture’s liminal dwelling on the edge of a vast and timeless wilderness, is something I consciously incorporate into Nonconnah’s work. It’s an impression of a time and place that has never left me, even as such a world is greatly threatened by mountaintop removal, the end of unions, and increasing disconnection from a modernized America. The South as a space and aura, more than just a landscape, swarms over everything, like the kudzu that lines ditches and ravines in fevered eruptions of green down here. It gets its roots deep in you. Even now this is true, residing in a city that’s the very definition of liminal space, with an urban area spilling into several states, culturally and geographically at the intersection of South and Midwest.
But the wilderness has always had its hooks in me, long before the South, as a child perpetually shadowed by the low-sloping mountains of western Massachusetts, like the steeply-sloping woods behind my uncle’s house in the hill towns. I discovered Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo in my later young adulthood, and to me it perfectly embodies the spectral and alien sense of an overwhelming wilderness and what moves through it. I continue to draw on such rough-hewn hallmarks even as they become grist for the hipster cliche mill - rust and old cutting tools, campfires and flannel. I love camping and hiking, love everything sensory that can be enjoyed in such a setting. It’s the elements that led me to the work of Phil Elverum in college, someone else I consider a huge influence on what we do. Still, Phil’s right when he’s said that nature isn’t some separate, outside space we ‘visit’, but present in everything we do. Nature is as much a skyscraper in Indianapolis as it is Glacier National Park. That sense of our separation from nature is a consequence of relentless development and globalism, one can guess. Still, mountains and woods are where my heart belongs, and perhaps its why I’ve found myself drawn to the black metal genre in recent years, bands like Darkthrone as well as recent adherents like Panopticon. The genre seems to sense the overwhelming ambivalence and haunted distancing of all that we call ‘nature’. It’s impossible not to see where black metal may come off as deeply problematic to some, or pure silliness to others, but the best examples of the field strike me as almost holy, a divination with the landscape and its creatures as the altar. It’s the part of me that burst into tears when I first saw the Grand Canyon, feeling impossibly small, dwarfed by something that has existed long before you and will exist after your death. I maintain that this is something everyone should experience once in awhile. It gives us a necessary sense of scale. It’s why I find pagan rituals so alluring; to me, direct communion with these forces is almost sacred.
Actual or perceived divinity, then, might be seen as another important theme of our work in Nonconnah. The sheer power of passionate belief, divorced from its intended context, has long fascinated me, all the way back to middle-school age, when I began to make clumsy four-track collages out of radio preachers’ sermons in my Outer Banks bedroom, not knowing it was music or even art. The dialogue samples we use in Nonconnah serve an important purpose that I think the folks in bands such as Godspeed would appreciate. Without lyrics, without vocals, I was in search of something that might stand within the music to deepen the experience, to comment on the music and have the music do the same, thus implying a shared meaning. Therefore, our themes often surface in both our titles and the samples we include, and passionate belief is the paramount. Not being a supporter of almost any of the unsettling expressions of belief we use, it becomes solely about the beauty of phrases themselves, the sound of a speaker’s voice as they reach a point of pure exultation. From old-time Pentecostal holy rollers to doomsday cults and snake handlers, from militia preppers in forest bunkers to artifacts of the Cold War surveillance state, all of these expressions hinge on the expression of undiluted belief, a desperate, clawing half-mad belief that something has it all figured out and is guiding our choices, benevolently and lovingly. That’s something I feel we can all relate to, no matter the vast differences between our outlooks and ideologies and theirs. Reduced to nothing but incantations and chants and rantings, all of it becomes harrowing and moving to me. It’s there in riots and unhinged mobs, and especially in what’s become an increasing fixation of mine as the trend has spiked: latter-day conspiracy theories. Whether it be chemtrails or GWEN towers, 5G cancer clusters or gang-stalking, I find this sort of willfully dishonest and narcissistic paranoia 100% inspiring, even as I find myself horrified at what these people have willed themselves into believing about their lives, the delusional self-importance that has these lost souls feeling not only targeted by an assembly of malign forces, but also feel this is important enough to share with the entirety of a YouTube audience. Perhaps the mundanity of an average American existence demands invented intrigue; all of this only speaks to our country’s steadily-accelerating entropy and inevitable decline. It’s as if these unwell, overburdened souls are a latter-day chorus bemoaning our increasing failures.
To be an American in 2021 is to feel an invisible shroud of dread hanging over us at all times, not always acknowledged but always present. A sense of wrongness increasingly inhabits even the most tedious of our daily activities, as we feel that few of our surroundings are ‘safe’ anymore from the outward expressions of that entropy and dread. We enter supermarkets and warehouses and automatically check where exits and hiding places are without even realizing we’re doing it, and then go home to be assailed into numbness by news of more mass shootings at more supermarkets, more warehouses. We who saw the decline of our empire in the offing felt that something paradigm-shifting was imminent, and COVID has brought us halfway to what we expected, a sort of casual slow-motion apocalypse that’s vague and remote enough to allow so many to deny its even occurred, who respond to threats to their convenience and subservience to late capitalism with cries of ‘tyranny’. No flaming skylines, no martial law with tanks of stoic soldiers evacuating neighborhoods, no visible gore. And now that its slightly lifted its death pall, the mass shootings have returned. Even if we claimed we weren’t inspired by such an atmosphere of decay and rot, we’d be lying. It’s in everyone’s art now. Not so much the actual horrors, as such horrors have always existed, either visibly or otherwise, but that strange sense of denial, of blinkered apathy or belligerent refusal to accept such objective truths. This dread has been part of our makeup since the first settlers arrived on our shores and found themselves faced with thousands of miles of unknown woods and prairie. They huddled around campfires and invented tales about what moved beyond the fire’s glowing circle. In telling themselves these myths, they classified the unknown, made it believable and understandable. We’re still them, except we now see such perceived forces as an annoyance, intrusions that interrupt our shopping.
This is what gives rise to another facet of contemporary American culture: our ever-growing acquaintance with the supernatural. This country is profoundly afflicted by its folklore, its urban legends and seances, its spiritualism and its end times prophecies, a sort of second language we all seem to be fluent in from birth. Our horror literature and cinema runs the gamut from voyeuristic slashers to persistent ghosts of some tragic collective past, the setting often a seemingly-perfect small town with dark secrets buried beneath. Whatever that says, metaphorically, about the national subconscious is perhaps too broad or obvious to point out, but there’s some truth to it nonetheless.
As my love of Blackwood should indicate, I’ve been drawn to the horrific and supernatural my entire life. A personal and rather traumatic experience with the supernatural at the age of sixteen solidified how profoundly my worldview has been influenced by the otherworldly. I look back at that time in my life as a forking path; if what happened to me had never been, I would be a very different person than I am today. Instead, what I saw upended my entire conception of reality for keeps. What happened that summer afforded me a brief glimpse through the veil, or more accurately through the peeling wallpaper of the ‘reality’ we’ve built, what we’ve agreed upon in mass consensus as objectively ‘real’ so we might function. For a moment, something beyond my understanding shifted beneath, adjacent to our plane of existence, seen as if through a haze. Since then, I’ve never been able to fully invest myself in the empirical, factual truth of these surroundings we’ve made, that we continue to window-dress with increasing human ingenuity and proliferating monuments to same. It’s as if, looking into a darkened and unfamiliar room, someone flicked the lights on for just a moment. If the same person, after hastily cutting the lights once more, insisted to you, ‘you didn’t see that’, it would have no effect. Your sense of what’s in that room is now forever altered. Therefore, a sense of the supernatural, both as metaphor and actual fact, has crept further into our work over time. I find myself repeatedly drawn to ‘thin places’, where the border grows diffuse; this has colored every detail of my art since. It’s perhaps why critics sometimes refer to the ‘unsettling’ or ‘dark’ aspects of our music so often, though to me the music often sounds much more positive and more hopeful than I think many perceive it as.
Again, it’s not as if my innate sense of a deeper reality living beneath our own ‘surface’ reality is a new concept. Its been with us our entire run as a species, more or less. Scientists and spiritualists both speculate on the possibility of other dimensions, alternate timelines running alongside our own. In my own home state, no less a serious scientific body than the Oak Ridge National Laboratory now has a team of technicians attempting to uncover the existence of a parallel reality. They say they’ve witnessed particles reacting in certain circumstances in a way that could only be explained by the phenomenon of said particles ‘traveling’ to another dimension. At a more metaphorical but no less tangible level, what is the rise of Trumper squeals of ‘fake news’ and the ensuing wave of COVID-as-hoax enthusiasts if not a decision to inhabit one’s own reality of their choosing, where facts and evidence are whatever you decide them to be, whatever’s most comfortable to pair with your worldview? Like any proliferating idea, there’s traces of the vagueness of our reality at all levels.
My own theory is what may seem like a negative or pessimistic one, even a disturbing one, but it comes from experiencing what I experienced, and my many encounters with ‘inexplicable’ nature since. It’s really very simple: everything we know is deemed inexplicable, a hoax, or a delusion, up to the point that science explains it. Science is discovering explanations for such daunting aberrations of nature and reality every day. For someone to believe in the validity of scientific progress yet claim that science has discovered all it ever will, with anything else left unexplained chalked up to a mistake or a delusion, is absurd. It would sound absurd, too, if you explained the cycle of insect life to someone in days long past that believed in spontaneous regeneration, would it not? The weird or the hoaxed remains as such until it is bears a taxonomy, and science, an institution I trust in very deeply, is nowhere near explaining away even a tiny fraction of everything we experience as a species. Therefore, I don’t view what happened to me personally, nor my views which developed as a result, as in any kind of antagonistic relationship with science. Science will get there, eventually, but in 2021, we still use a fraction of our senses to perceive the world around us, and some of us arrogantly insist that this is all there is, there’s nothing left to be uncovered. In simple terms, it’s common sense that if we’re unable to see or otherwise sense so much of the world, then that would imply something else is around us. And I can tell you from experience, even if you aren’t directly seeing it…it can see you.
Sometimes it feels to me like I’m awake while the rest of the world is happily asleep, dreaming pleasant dreams of society and civilization, of logic and order. I wish I could be asleep like that. I know how incredibly condescending that sounds, but again, it’s nothing I ever wished for, not in the least. Regardless, our world supplies dark matter, black holes eating stars, and whatever lurks in the interstellar medium, dwarfing us in a way that the Grand Canyon never can. Anyone who feels they understand all of that is a person who’s helplessly delusional. If we stop striving to understand and learn more, we effectively surrender to extinction as a species. Adaptation is our only life-raft left.
Yet truth is the province of whoever is relating it, whether in writing or verbally, in photograph or painting or song. Our entire conception of history is shaped by bias and perspective alone, and what we feel to be ‘reality’ seems much the same, doomed to be misremembered like a witness to a crime in a precinct interview room, straining to recall. Dunning-Kruger runs rampant through the American populace currently, a stubborn refusal to trust those with more experience and knowledge, insisting on a personal and anecdotal understanding that conforms to a favored worldview. Wildly unhinged conspiracies laugh in the face of Occam’s Razor and Schrodinger’s contradicting cat. So much of what seems like cracks in the very foundation of things, from the ground level, are signs all is running splendidly for those that benefit from such discord. Truth has never felt like less of a torch to ward off the darkness. If one cannot trust experts, what can one trust? We’re told that demon possession is actually schizophrenia, a misunderstanding from before academia and scientific inquiry…but that’s the perspective of the teller. What evidence do we personally have, any of us, that the opposite isn’t true? What if all these facts and figures are conjured out of nothing to stave off the more frightening reality? This is how truth tends to perjure itself as a concept, opens itself up to corrupted interpretations. Perhaps this sort of mystery causes our cultural fascinations with the void, the abyss. Oblivion. This is an absence that creates a presence (to paraphrase the title of an early Lost Trail tape), something that implies, through its non-existence, the possibility of something much grander.
So yes, COVID only partially delivered on the apocalypse we were all promised, the one many seemed to actively be pining for, a true leveling and rebuilding of the playing field. If anything, we were meant to be offered a chance to obliterate the class divide in one fell swoop. Instead, we continue on like dance marathoners in the Great Depression, acting out the same tired patterns to please an elite that may reward us with a few scraps if we survive. By this late in the marathon, we’re haggard and delirious, literally dying on our feet, but we continue because we don’t know what else to do. Hope can be a curse, and the capacity for hope can be exploited. The endless dance marathon, those shadowy figures laughing at our stumbles, are the devil we all know. Instead of a Mad Max adventure of survival, this small apocalypse is deeply boring, and bringing out the worst of us as Americans, both in our sociopathy and our determination to ignore reality so we can get back to shopping and wage-slaving. Obedience to corporations is so ingrained in who we are that a literal deadly virus keeping us home makes us feel ‘lazy’ and ‘unproductive’. This is chilling to consider. While other countries prize leisure activities as the true thrust of a life (and therefore see their quality of life demographics soar well past ours on every chart), we demand to return to consumer fealty. Many of us are now manipulated beyond any sense of individuality outside the system itself. Where once we nurtured and encouraged a sense of wonder and experience in children, a sense of insight and magic, we now insist on a bland conformity that will better train them for a corporate-class future of servitude and chain purchasing. It’s achievement-based learning and bubble sheets for future tech-industry automatons, retail purgatory for the rest. We no longer require witch-hunts to instill the lesson that deviation from the norm is unacceptable. We simply make it impossible to function as anything else, isolate and exclude people and dehumanize them until there’s no chance of them re-entering the schematic. Has this been true all along in America? Sure. But it’s in bad faith to argue that it hasn’t accelerated as the country’s essential quality of living has declined. What goodness remains?
I’m digressing. Though both Denny and myself are determined left activists, very little of the ostensibly political creeps into our music, and that’s by design. By attempting to underline grander issues at stake, things that loom beyond politics, we more aim to communicate that all of us are communally experiencing American entropy and rot in the same fashion, acknowledged or not. No one is free, not even the wealthiest one percent of our citizens, who’ll discover too late that all of that exploitation and cruelty and apathy wasn’t worth it, that material acquisitions and status not only didn’t fill a gnawing need for fulfillment inside themselves, but that it also didn’t ward off an inevitable death. Death equalizes all, with no difference between the billionaire and the ditch-digger. We Americans seem to believe that death always belongs to other people, other cultures, even as we borderline worship the entire concept of senseless death in our disturbing fixation on high-powered weapons.
So what do we see as we face environmental calamity and societal collapse on unprecedented scales? We see many taking refuge in the tropes of the past, including myself. Nostalgia can be seductive, but its dangers as a coping mechanism have been somewhat inflated, as well. The generations living today surely only see gathering storm-clouds in their future, so any investment in future ingenuity is anathema. Accordingly we find ourselves retreating into the futuristic and novel of the past, as if seeking an alternate course our future could’ve taken. In retrospect, the myriad capering horrors of the eighties are absent, and all is replaced with a kind of imaginary eighties of mall food courts and side ponytails and pastels. It isn’t necessarily nostalgia to seek a past that never existed, however. Revisionism recasts the past as imaginary, a utopia of amplified pleasures and ignored depravities. It often reaches the point of fetishization, but to me this seems largely harmless, a totally understandable mental construct given what we’re all facing. If the future before you is bleak and barren, the past remains a wellspring for refashioned ideas. Authenticity and originality are naive concepts; everything is a variation on one past theme or another. This sort of revisionist history, this selective recollection of a forgotten time, is a considerable part of what makes us all Americans.
Which bring us to another crucial theme of what we’re trying to get across in Nonconnah (and sometimes, hopefully, we succeed). The past as a living structure, something which stands outside of time yet comments on it all the same, is something that has always been with me, even more amplified since the experience I alluded to earlier. The present is gone as soon as we observe it, by its very definition. We are continuously inhabiting a future that is more uncertain than ever, looming just out of view over the horizon, a mask with no face to give it shape. But the past never stops happening. It affects every decision we make and everything we carry with us through this life, a kind of metaphysical heirloom we’re gifted upon birth and only surrender in death (if even then). The past is inherently recursive, and investigating cycles of history shows that much of what will happen can be predicted as inevitable and repetitious due to evidence in the past itself. Nothing underlines the porous nature of time as a construct like considering the past. We talk of what’s permanent and impermanent, but the only real permanence is the past itself, and how it shadows us and steers us. Sometimes, when it’s termed ‘experience’, we learn from the past. Otherwise, when it’s traumatic, it haunts us, and really, there’s likely no greater metaphor for all of human experience than the ghost. It’s our inherent duality - we project ourselves into a prosperous and satisfying future to fight off the ghosts of the past, but we’re all secretly addicted to our pasts regardless, be they halcyon or horrifying. We speak of spans of missing time, as in supposed UFO abduction cases, and we speak of the amaranth as a mythical flower that never fades, but still we deny the meaninglessness of time itself. We rarely feel that a suspended moment in our lives is a turning point while it’s happening, but in retrospect it all becomes apparent, informed by the present but still enthralled to the past, an ouroboros of perception. What changes in someone in that moment, that one before and after? Life is made up of millions of purely inconsequential moments, but these turning points all remain with us.
I think of where I find my own metaphors in life, the spaces and situations I’m drawn to. The idea of distance is something perpetually on my mind, figures glimpsed across space, things hidden at a remove beyond horizons or looming above something (a metaphor you’ll note I employed once here already). There’s something about the idea of distance which renders so much inhabiting it surreal - an obscured face, vehicles moving like flashes of silver on a freeway bridge. There’s a stillness that hovers in that distance, implied or literal. I think of how the interior landscapes of our lives cohabitate with the sprawling exterior landscapes of our world, and how we move through the latter. I find myself referring to structures of change and access - keys, doors, walls, gates. This is the illusion of progressing through that landscape, of living a life played out on an incomprehensible chess-board. Always there remains that eerie stillness, that sky curving above us without answers, without communication. Eugene Thacker writes about how the ‘world for itself’ differentiates from the world we encounter and experience; unobserved, the world for itself is utterly ambivalent to our existence and fundamentally unknowable. Reckoning with the mystery of the world for itself is a lifelong process for those who consider it, the implied distance and stillness between ourselves and our landscape.
I find outskirts of places alluring, and always have. At night, driving along the edges of a large city, a region littered with industrial wastes and foggy marshes, warehouses with halogen lighting piercing the gloom, one is met again with that eerie, unreadable stillness, the sense of distance encoded in the mad assemblage of humanity visible over the tree-line or the overpass. The night-world, the shadow-world, is where I’ve always felt most comfortable, traveling and experiencing it while most are fast asleep (literally this time, rather than metaphorically). It seems an entirely different world than the sparkling bustle of daytime life. My night-owl nature manifested as a a result of persistent, recurring nightmares in the years following that summer of 2000; these days, I’ve developed an alleged ‘circadian rhythm disorder’ that would order me to be awake in these hours regardless. Driving, especially, gives me that thrill of a solitary traveler in a faded civilization, passing sleeping houses and factories on empty expressways, the blinking red polestars of radio towers ahead, the stars stretching in fathoms upon fathoms above. An introverted person tends to feel at home in a slumbering, silent city. Upon returning to the snug interior space of your home, it’s like passing between territories. A warm, lit house viewed from exterior night is a different sensation than peering from the inside out.
It’s also perhaps no surprise that decay and the abandoned repeatedly appear in our works. Denny and I first connected over our shared interest in this realm, and it remains one of our most valued pastimes. I started young with what would eventually be termed ‘urban exploration’, having been led through an abandoned amusement park’s property on the side of a western Massachusetts mountain while hiking with my mother and older brother. My corner of the state was heavily industrial, a topography of abandoned brick mills and omnipresent freight trains in narrow woody hollows, and in my early years there I saw much of this turn to dereliction, to graffiti-scrawled monoliths overgrown with ivy on dead-end roads, clinging to cliffs along rocky rivers. I’ve always been borderline-obsessed with the deserted spaces that nature comes to reclaim and turn into something else, robbing them of their once-human context. It’s the closest thing we have to ancient ruins in this country, after all, and that which is left behind speaks to the lives of those who left these places behind in the first place, a manner of understanding who we were and how that co-exists within who we are (there’s the past again). I’ve never seen these places in a bleak or depressing light, or more accurately, I don’t shy away from the beauty that can be found in the forgotten, the isolated, the derelict, much as I don’t shy from dark experiences that enrich the lighter end of life in their contrast. It’s the way so many of us shy from the idea of an enjoyable melancholy, whether in music or any other art form, and insist on a forced, unhealthy, plastic-surface ‘happiness’. It’s a deliberate, willed naivety that I simply cannot respect. It affords little understanding of the reality of the world, and robs the joy of its vigor by denying it a contrasting ugliness or wickedness. I have always craved a life of vivid experience, both sides extant. By uncoupling abandoned spaces, horror media, or anything else from its pop-culture trappings, I find a sense of easily-missed beauty in such embodiments of the shadowy and weird.
This extends even to suburbia, another recurring theme of ours, a sense of depthless and conforming suburban sprawl yielding to nature at its tattered edges. Like any touring musician who’s come to view much of America as essentially identical, given its highway exits’ repetitive vistas of the same leering logos and neon, I find much of suburban sprawl to be the very death of the individuality, imagination, self-reliance, and craftsmanship we hope to hold as a people. But I’m not averse to glimpsing the off-kilter prosaic beauty in a shopping cart submerged in a reservoir, or the way certain parking lot lights cause my skin to break out in goosebumps with their accidental beauty. To be able to find beauty in both the conventionally aesthetically-pleasing and the overlooked is perhaps the part of myself I’m most proud of; its cultivated a sense of observance I’ve been careful to maintain, a way of seeing deeper. Following the 2008 crisis, much of suburbia became abandoned and ghostly, anyway, entire planned neighborhoods beneath dead streetlights inhabiting a hushed void, homes either never built or unfinished, shells in the midst of progress with specters of dinosauric dead malls beyond the cul-de-sacs. Even this resolute future becomes the past, rusts, decays in its own languid half-life.
Perhaps it’s in these darker moments, be they urban legends and what they say about us as a people, or stories of past tragedies and atrocities, that feel most closely related to that ‘other world’ beneath the skin of our own, somehow more genuinely an objective reality than the facile and the trite. The truth of the world, hard as it may be to reckon with, is that for every first kiss and favorite ice cream, there’s a Unit 731, a Fall Of Saigon, a Therac-25 stealthily killing its victims in the guise of pioneering technology and reprehensible human error. There’s the joy and childish abandon of an amusement park in Kansas City right alongside the gigantic waterslide, constructed by arrogant and inexperienced engineers with only profit margins in mind, that decapitates the boy riding it. Do I consider myself a pessimist, morbid as a human being? No. I genuinely try to see the best in people. I loathe cynicism, as a rule. I have a boundless capacity for hope and resourcefulness that has sustained me in many crises. I just feel that the heart-stopping, beautiful moments that make life worth living grow nullified and falsified if we don’t consider their opposite, as well. The light burns brighter when you know the darkness is out there. The sense of gratitude therein is profound to me.
This is why, I think, many of our themes seem twofold, a dichotomy in character. I have a veneration for the nature of certain emblematic animals, such as the deer and the wolf. The natural world is as much present in our intentions with what we do as the developed one. The intersection where they meet is especially important to me, that sense of duality. Like any good son of New England, I fetishize the autumn and its bittersweet character, the way the light begins to shift more golden as the leaves begin to fall. With autumn comes Halloween, my very favorite day of the year, itself a duality, its shadowy origins and sense of communication with the undead, its masks and pantomimes of hiddenness, alongside the clear pleasure of its tropes and experiences. There’s the forest itself, my most intimately beloved of natural spaces, given both to bucolic reflection and, again, that sense of shadowy otherness and unknown possibility, a setting where all kinds of dramas might unfold. Again, a sense of liminality in general, and the psycho-geographical concept of uchronia, a fictional universe that might exist but fundamentally remains fantasy. In our conjured sense of nostalgia, we tend to subvert a tendency to eulogize the valorous and romantic, instead finding interesting corners of contemplation in past tragedies, freak occurrences, strange whims of humanity and observances that tell us profound truths about ourselves. For as much as I venerate human belief, there’s also the consequences of preventable human failure in my fascinations, the wormholes I disappear down in research and in making art. At the intersection of the nostalgic and horrific in this country’s past collective memory is Satanic Panic. The Challenger disaster. John Calhoun’s Mouse Utopia experiments and what they told us about the effects of overpopulation on an intelligent psyche. Our country’s terrifying yet fascinating history of human experimentation in the name of military defense. Our reprehensible attitudes towards the mentally ill, and how we’ve converted this to stereotypes and stock manifestations with time. All of it at once is a memory and an amnesia, a revision and a personal anecdote in the context of shared experience. We tell each other, ‘I remember where I was on September 11th, where we you?’ We’ve been enacting this dance this since ‘I remember where I was when the Declaration of Independence was signed’, and surely much further back, reliving the past through shared perspectives and thus maintaining its vitality. This is our main cultural conversation as Americans. We find a kinship in shared, often grim, experiences. We draw strength from it. Perhaps every culture does, to some extent, but it’s ingrained in how we live in this country. We want to believe in the good, we fake happiness as a part of being included, but we secretly (or in acceptable forms, like shared recollections of tragedies or horror media) delight in all the darkness.
I think about how my own family’s history has affected me as I’ve grown. I’m now closing in fast on forty, still feeling all of twenty years old, wondering where all the time went. I won’t go into details here for obvious reasons, but much of my family is marked by addiction and misfortune. Other than half-hearted dalliances in my late teens and very early twenties, I’ve mostly abstained from the alcohol that has crippled the prospects of too many of my relatives. Much of my family’s past can be tied to abuse and infidelity, misfortune and financial calamity. A nightmarish plane crash in the Cincinnati area claimed one long-ago uncle, and still I wonder where my persistent fascination with aviation accidents comes from, that illusion of modern safety felled by mechanical error and gravity, the playing out of certain roles we see as crucial to the experience of a plane falling out of the sky. I’ve sampled black box recordings in our music and no one has ever called this insensitive or offensive, so I know I’m far from alone in this prurient fixation, but I imagine most people in this country are only a few scant degrees separated from a victim or survivor of airline misadventure (though the concept seems a bit antiquated, as the technology has improved enough to largely prevent such disasters).
And how about fire? From my love of a good campfire’s glow and scent, to my also-unsettling interest in fire-related disasters throughout the years, I’ve often wondered where it all psychologically stems from. The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, the Cheektowaga School Fire, the Karamay fire during a school performance for Communist Party officials in western China…what is it about fire and how we confront it? There too, I have a family connection: my grandmother was a survivor of the Hartford Circus Fire of July, 1944, in which at least one hundred and sixty-seven Ringling Brothers attendees were killed in a stampede as the big top burst into flames (the cause of the fire has never been determined). Reading Stewart O’Nan’s comprehensive history of the fire, I was absolutely engrossed. Why are we drawn to such upsetting yet fascinating tragedies? I devour documentaries on tragedy - The deaths at Action Park in New Jersey, the Carrollton school bus disaster. Here in Memphis, there’s an absurd abundance of calamities that no one ever seems to talk about, here or elsewhere - chemical tanker trucks exploding, numerous plane crashes, industrial explosions, train derailments, serial killers apprehended or never identified, black market adoption rings, police brutality, police shootouts with religious cults, mass shootings, boats sinking. The yellow fever epidemics and the Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations are too huge to ignore, but does the city fail to tend to its collective memory by willing other events into amnesia? Is perversely dwelling on them any better?
I just can’t see such interests as anything but a healthy case of taking the bitter with the sweet, a sense of inoculating oneself to darkness, with the light a little brighter in contrast, with a sense of learning from the lessons of the horrific. To meet me, you’d think I was a fairly good-natured person with a well-developed sense of humor (although some of it cathartic and dark), nothing to suggest an interest in the bleak and the haunted. But that’s the nature of people - we’re messy and complicated, we don’t fit into binaries, and we’ll always vary a bit in our behaviors depending on the setting. I imagine many of us feel the same, a little ashamed of our more socially-unacceptable fascinations, stifling them in gatherings but helpless to such whims in private all the same. The recent Chernobyl miniseries on HBO was a huge hit, not just because it’s an absolute masterpiece of television as an art form, well-acted, beautifully-scripted and filmed, but because there’s a fascination there. An entire city left too poisonous to live in. Thank God it’s not us, but it sure is fascinating. We allow unchecked pollution to increasingly render our planet, the only one we have, uninhabitable in the name of the free market and late capitalism. 99% of all the world’s population carries ‘forever chemicals’ in their bodies, chemicals that never degrade and will outlive all of us. Only the most remote and uncontacted of tribes are said to be free of this cunning violation of our biologies. But when well-shot and well-acted, in a melodramatically-scripted sequence of events, even non-fiction becomes entertainment, a distancing from reality. Generally, nothing ever seems fully real unless we experience it ourselves. In this manner, pollution is as commonplace as the false hellebore, the oleander, a hazard of our world.
And what of those distancing mediums, the camera, the recording device, et al? I refrain from condemning technological advances unduly. For as much as people clutch pearls and fret over iPhones and the like, the same sorts of people were tut-tutting over the prevalence of newspapers in the early decades of a century we left behind. However, Denny and I both take great issue with the concept of obsolescence. Frankly, I don’t believe in the word. If something can still be used to the extent desired, it’s not obsolete. Perfection in media is as phony as the assumed plastic happiness of conformity, and it leaves many of my own generation feeling a bit overwhelmed and adrift. I’ve always preferred the warmth of cassettes to an icy, sterile digital sheen. I have always preferred the scratches and burns of old film stock and the tracking errors and blurring of VHS to HDTV. I don’t believe this is the inevitable progression of one generation sneering at the younger generation’s advances, insisting their own were ‘better’. I preferred these ‘dead’ mediums for our work long before others began to pick up the trend, the return to cassette and video and film aesthetics. For me, it comes from a rejection of ‘perfect’ as an ideology. There is no perfect. Much as dark events underline how stunning the light is, so does imperfection highlight the beauty in a struggle towards perfection. It’s why our music is plagued with intentional error, with static pitch-warbling and cut-outs, our visuals splitting at the seams, our Polaroid photographs bearing the scars and flat crime-scene lighting of forgotten, primitive photography. Guitar feedback is my best friend. I once switched on radio static, loudly, to calm down during a panic attack. We don’t work exclusively with these forms, but we do juxtapose them with the DAW-recorded, the plugins and the fancy boutique pedals. Once more, contrast for effect. In the same line, we favor forgotten and unusual guitars, usually Japanese-imported catalog models from the sixties. We collect obscure, discarded, long-forgotten instruments like the Marxophone, folk instruments like the Balkan ciftelia and the phin of northeastern Thailand. This isn’t stubborn non-conformity, or not merely that. We’re reclaiming what society has deemed, essentially, landfill-worthy, a product of a time we either choose to forget or fetishize beyond verisimilitude. Thus, our music always seems a bit more ‘real’ to me than most professional studio creations. It’s worn, imperfect, cobbled-together, homemade, like humans tend to be. It becomes us.
That homespun vernacular relates to our recording processes, as well. I have always said I’m more sound collagist than musician. I don’t often write beforehand, but begin to play until something strikes my favor as interesting. We don’t usually overdub in the traditional sense, preferring to record fragments of sounds and then layer them together in a way that sounds somehow ‘right’ to us. I use an abundant amount of effects pedals, something elder guitarists assume must be a sign of a lacking in proficiency, a kind of subterfuge of gadgetry. I’ve never been much interested in empty spectacles of Malmsteen-like skill, as it doesn’t serve what we do, and I’m not so insecure as to need to prove to anyone that I’m a compelling guitarist. That sort of blues-lawyer level of gatekeeping ego doesn’t exist within me. There’s no orthodoxy I care about. The only way to make a guitar interesting in 2021 is to do new things with it, cross new boundaries, push envelopes. Reverence for past modes only carries so far before it all must be torn down to configure something new. Effects allow me to do so. A guitar is only a tool to me, as is a synthesizer or anything else we pick up. Denny and I play a number of instruments, but that doesn’t mean we know how to play many of them. That’s what makes it (hopefully) compelling. Classically-trained (even a little trained) musicians would not create what we create. This is how we connect to primitivism, to the folk music of old-time mountain culture. It’s freedom, no constrictions, no rules outlining what you can or cannot do with this or that. We detest that. Accordingly, we treasure the old. Old houses. Old vehicles. There’s still a shimmer lurking within them. Too much of the new is uniform, lifeless. We crave the imperfect and the ignored as a principle.
What those Set Fire To Flames albums taught me, among other things, is that the world will impose itself in interesting ways if you let it, while recording. A barking dog in the distance. The rustle of wind through leaves. Home recording is limiting in a way that I find necessary to be productive as someone living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it also lacks the sterile, distancing remove of a studio. I’ve never aimed to create hollow exercises in fidelity, I want my surroundings to be incorporated if they must. That’s fate. I feel I have no say in any of it creeping into the margins. It only serves to humanize what can be a very robotic, dehumanized form of art. Also, I will always prefer recording to performing live. As a non-drinker who has an aversion to crowds, shows mean anxiety. Shows are not being able to effectively reproduce the tapestries of the recorded works, and settling for improvisation instead. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes our antiquated machinery that we treasure so much fails in front of an audience. I feel little of the invigorating thrill that many musicians feel performing live. At home, recording is my playground, where I can assemble a lasting document of sound rather than a fleeting approximation in front of yelling, often rude drunk people who are puzzled by what we do. It’s why, if I must play live, I prefer the camaraderie and rustic homespun charm of house venues, all those gorgeous old sagging derelicts with their massive porches and uneven stairs, which supply the same respect for the art as galleries but lack the stifling sterility. I suppose my preference for recording at home is reflected in my preference for listening to music privately rather than regularly attending shows. Music for me is a personal, not communal, experience. When fans and critics praise what we do, it touches me and makes feel purposeful (something I struggle with as a full-time musician, an entirely separate discussion), but at the end of the day I’d be making art for myself even if no one paid attention. Praise is a happy bonus for me.
So at home, I mostly listen to music on headphones. Other than listening in the car, where headphones aren’t a safe option, I prefer the intimacy and attention to every small detail that a good pair of headphones provides. Often I listen to other people’s music in bed, drifting off to sleep at night. I used to be able to wile away entire afternoons like this in college, but my attention span has regrettably shrunk as I’ve aged. Still, my home music space is my paradise. Here I can conduct the most outlandish half-baked recording experiments I can dream up, things perhaps no one else has attempted. We’ve buried tape recorders in the earth and recorded them from the surface. We’ve thrown instruments down stairs and recorded the cacophony. We’ve recorded drums from different floors of a building. We’ve immersed tape machines in water and played them back into microphones. In numerous abandoned spaces, beneath highway overpasses, along state park trails, we record and record some more. This, to me, is my life’s purpose. Recording is a limitless canvas of possibilities in sound. As a synesthetic person who hears sound as colors, and reads words the same, a sense of the unorthodox and daring is crucial so we don’t become complacent. I was once a person who occasionally succumbed to laziness; now I become restless and depressed if not actively working.
Our multimedia sensibilities for this project extend elsewhere, as well. We film for our live visuals in VHS and Super 8, or assemble found vintage media from the public domain, as well as use digital. We take photographs with Polaroid, Holga, and pinhole cameras. We write in experimental fashion, with as much description as possible to communicate a mood as vividly as possible. All of this is included in both live performance and the album materials. The sound alone is not enough. As someone who grew up aiming to be a writer and who fell in love with photography in college, I deeply appreciate that a musical release allows you to incorporate all art forms into a singular package. There’s a sense of age and eeriness in this old ephemera of course, and the imperfection that makes all of it so affecting, a rebellion against society’s push for sterile, faux-perfect sheen with no trace of error and thus, no trace of humanity. But the desolation of so much of these photographs and videos, and sometimes the music and writings, communicates something that stirs deep within me. A building or a house, a tree or a street, empty and thus caught suspended in time, absent of context and existing only as a singular self. Or, the disfiguring effect of motion, hands blurred or bisected by the frame, long-dead relatives covering their faces over birthday candles. This is a physical, tactile history of our country and way of life in media that we’re losing through relentless digitization, right down to streaming services such as Spotify, implanting through implied conformity the idea that one doesn’t own their own art, but rather borrows it from a corporate gatekeeper who inserts ads between the content (and manages the presence of content that suits their corporate needs vs. the sort of obscurities that I discovered through Pitchfork as a teenager, and also pays us musicians abysmally). We are losing all sense of the physical in art lately. These relics speak as witness to the era we’re leaving behind, which again is becoming either brutally fetishized and co-opted, or erased. Everything is reshaping itself as Beaudrillard’s simulacra, a sign of the thing it represents, a facsimile of what it replaces. Even more to the point, Magritte’s ‘pipe’ comes to mind, the false replacing the actual.
Maybe it’s no mistake that the non-musical art that inspires me most is along these lines. Decay, whether bodily or in the landscape. Unchecked consumerism and its implications. Suburbia and its surreal aura of non-reality. Strange spaces where reality becomes diffuse, where other realms prove accessible. The effects of the past, positively or negatively, on a life, on memory and forgetting. The fading technology that is our accomplice in how we perceive the past and memory. All of this is found in some of my favorite writers and filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Haneke, DeLillo, Cronenberg, Lynch, Reichardt, Chan-wook, Egoyan, Ramsay, Straub, Dick, Steinbeck, Plath, Carson, Banks, King, Sartre, Kunstler, Ballard, Vonnegut, Capote, Powers. Too many to list in a lifetime’s writing. We really are magpies - sometimes I think, with our consolidation of so many different influences and subtexts, that we struggle for acceptance by working in a genre-less no man’s land. We’re too melodic and even simplistic for much of the academic, elite, white-walled gallery Eno brand of scenesters, but too out there and inaccessibly noisy for the indie kids. We’re a hard sell, but it’s all we know how to be.
I come by this obdurate individualism naturally. My mother, a single mom with two young kids in the mid-90s, hauled us off to a region of the country she knew little about and became a self-supporting watercolor and collage artist (an acclaimed and commercially-popular one, at that). This was my model for how to make a living in art, for better or worse. I was never discouraged from artistic pursuits as a viable profession like most American children. Still, it remains true that despite all the acclaim and vocal devotion of our small cult, I make very little money from music, and count on both side hustles in music journalism and my wife’s far more substantial income to survive. This is an absolute privilege and I don’t take it lightly, but it does occasionally lead to stereotypical snarkery along the lines of gender roles, men as ‘providers’ and ‘breadwinners’. I am very lucky. These consequences are a minor annoyance. My wife and collaborator has had to contend with my mercurial nature as well as my lack of income and eccentric passions for over a dozen years now. She is to be fully commended for this, for she’s never wavered in the idea that my fulfillment should matter more than my level of income. Being an artist in America is a specific form of masochism; where European countries often help to fund the living expenses of their artists, here we’re faced with a populace who devours art like locusts but fails to recognize the physical and emotional labor behind the work, fails to perceive the artist as a living human being who should be compensated duly for providing that labor, the service they treasure. To pursue art full-time is to court frustration and rejection and poverty, and to know this and do so anyways, as I have, takes being a bit unbalanced in general. You’re dropping out of polite society, into a thankless landscape of suffering much of the time, all while conscious of how privileged you are to even be in the position of complaining about all of it. You must sustain yourself for considerable durations without validation or reassurance. It may seem entitled coming from someone in this admittedly-charmed position, but it’s nonetheless true.
I didn’t always want to be a musician, and still don’t want to be a musician when times are hard. Music is as seemingly difficult to quit as the Mafia, or an Amish community. After college, I fell into a lingering fascination with the drug cartel wars in Mexico, specifically in and around Juarez, once the most violent city in the world, where in addition to the drug slayings the serial murders of women once skyrocketed into the hundreds. I fancied myself quite the embedded journalist until the suicidal danger of becoming a journalist covering the Mexican drug wars firsthand occurred to me. Juarez is yet another liminal space, of course, just across the border from El Paso, ironically one of the safest large cities in our country. South of El Paso, uneducated women toil for slave wages at tax-dodging sweatshops we all benefit from somewhere along the supply chain. Walking unlit streets to and from work, they disappear or turn up dead in the desert, and no one is ever arrested for it. I wanted to write great things about such a place, this hell on earth just feet from our ‘society’, but I didn’t want to die doing it. Other possible occupations have occurred to me here and there, but music seems to be all I can work hard at. Our guidance counselors in school told us to ‘do what you love and you’ll be successful’. Financially, it was a lie, but in terms of fulfillment, this seems to be all I want to spend my time on. Though I recognize my skill in writing, I have to force myself to do it. That’s not the case with music. Photography, even used in the context of our releases, is a much-needed non-musical hobby, one I would never want to make a living from, lest it ruin the tranquil connection I have to its toils.
But with time, even the interests that one would assume would never seep into one’s art turn up, somehow or another. If you’re around my age, you might remember the scare films they showed us in high school driver’s education classes, gory vignettes like the Red Asphalt series, which highlighted gruesome real-life accidents, a deeply condescending and judgmental narrator commenting on how unnecessary it all was. It always seemed to me that making us terrified, anxious drivers was just as dangerous as making us reckless ones, but I wasn’t in charge, I guess. Regardless, samples from that series, and other vintage public education and safety films, are something that ends up sampled by us rather routinely. The juxtaposition of either soul-stirring or haunted-seeming music with these excerpts is only deepened by the content and the delivery, repurposing yet another relic of the old into a newly-formed composition. And speaking of urban legends, there’s also the Polybius myth. I’ve never been much of a gamer, as my mom was always the video game addict in the family, but something about this urban legend called to me. The idea is that an arcade game briefly available in the Pacific Northwest in the early eighties, Polybius, was actually meant as government-funded human experimentation, and often led to seizures and all sorts of other grisly side effects. The name of the German firm that allegedly manufactured the game translated, roughly, to ‘sense delete’, a phrase that has haunted me since I first encountered such fun horseshit. Of course, there’s zero evidence that this is anything but a campfire tale, but there’s provably-real elements elsewhere in the gaming world that appeal to me in their sense of imperfection, wrongness, and hidden-ness. I follow several YouTube channels that spotlight the phenomenon of ‘boundary breaking’, or exploring areas of games that developers never finished or never intended anyone to enter. There’s something intrinsically intriguing to us in the concept of the ‘hidden room’, the forbidden zone of Chernobyl, the secret collection of Bluebeard’s victims. It’s the uncanny at the edge of reality, with reality close at hand but as impossibly distant as the earth glimpsed from the surface of the moon. Taking this conceit even further are ‘minus worlds’, which serve as hidden ‘pre-levels’ in some games, serving a similar purpose as the ‘hidden tracks’ on compact discs that existed in the ‘pre-gap’ before songs.
I could spend further rambling paragraphs on countless other themes and interests that have slipped into what we do in Nonconnah. The Cold War surveillance state and its Brutalist architecture, and even its abandoned surrealist monuments littering the Eastern Bloc (more liminal spaces of mystery, I guess, like the treacherous border between the GDR and Democratic West Germany, with more antiquated machinery used for documentation and recording). Elaborating on this, the general idea of government ephemera - the censored images, the redacted documents, the hidden tapes and evidence in flickering-fluorescent basements, even the typefaces, as specific fonts have always held great importance to me when assembling our artwork, and how all of this doubles back to our love of etymology and the limits of communication, the gaps, the further absences making presences. All the old official institutions in pale green and Futura font, drop ceilings rotting, insulation sagging, wires bulging. The very idea of territories, of flags and identities, all of it artificial, imposed by man alone.
Greek mythology should be noted here, as well. The lessons of Ancient Greece will always be deathlessly relatable to modern life. The recurring imagery of specific tales, from the Minotaur to Iphigenia, from Oedipus to the Underworld, linger with me as I create: grave sacrifices, the deer as uncorrupted innocence, monsters, labyrinths, the undead and the living, the desperate self-blinding, the inescapable sense of unkind fate. A haruspex divined prophecy from the entrails of slaughtered animals; the hecatomb was the sacrifice of one hundred head of oxen. Lost phrases and rituals, drama and consequences and choices, all still so much a part of the fabric of how we live, a stillness that manages a voice nonetheless, beyond epochs. Perhaps this is why George Seferis remains my favorite of all poets, a modern Greek struggling with the weight of all this past mythology, haunted by it, seeing it in everything, a ghostly echo beneath the swift current of the contemporary. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s exactly this sort of double-exposure between past and present that is part of being Southern. There’s cannon-fire and bullwhip cracks here that one must live alongside to live here.
But am I hostile to technology in favoring the ‘obsolete’? No, I don’t think so. Technology is inescapable in the trap of late capitalist America. There is no dropping out; even the most devout off-grid vegan still participates in the exploitation game somewhere along the line. At least one can be conscious of it enough to make gestures of resistance, futile as they may seem. One choosing not to participate in one facet of the chain is still a victory. Regardless, the same Foxconn factory in China that had to install suicide netting to keep despairing, overworked staff from leaping to their deaths built the MacBook that makes my recording career possible, the same one I write these tangential ravings on. We’re all complicit in the crime. There is no way to avoid it. Western culture is fascinated by the binary of darkness vs. light because we live with these avatars intimately. As we discard so much of once-innovative technology in our culture, we fret over it to the point of excavating it. We build YouTube channels around retail archaeology, venerating the dead brands of our childhood as if they were long-dead relatives or cherished pets. Its no wonder we enshrined the idea of ‘corporations as people’ into law. In America, nothing is above being idolized, anthropomorphized. Our infrastructure collapses as we refuse to update so much of our logistics and commercial travel elements, but who doesn’t love the old-time charm of freight trains and railroad tracks? I know I do. Part of my childhood’s terrain was listening late at night to the sound of Conrail freights wailing through the mountain passes outside of town, nosing through my curtains, an early love of sound for sound’s sake, even the ostensibly-undesirable or arbitrary sound. Trains have a built-in romance and nostalgia, even as we continue doing so much freight shipping with units from as old as the Fifties. We build consequences and wall ourselves off from them, like the noise-walls carefully constructed along freeways so suburbanites who choose to live within a stone’s throw of a busy road don’t have to hear its thunder. Generation loss is a video technology term for degradation that occurs from copy to copy of a videocassette, but can this not be applied to generations of Americans, as the faint traces of our former ingenuity and leading-edge civilization remain discernible, yet still keep diminishing?
None of this is evil. Evil is a religious, superstitious concept, and honestly has no place in an enlightened society where we understand so much more about mental illness and societal pressures on individuals. Mass shootings should surprise no one, noting the juncture of the perceived freedom and vengeance that gun culture offers with the alienating sense of dehumanizing drudgery within public spaces, or around increasingly-diverse cultures. Are we surprised that a conman was able to whip into a frenzy so many gullible, impoverished, and even sociopathic people who’ve been isolated from education, culture, and science? Told that their rugged individualism meant zero empathy? Prey on their nationalism to allow all sorts of corruptions and open grift? It was bound to happen eventually. We entertain ourselves, myself included, with true crime documentaries, a new one streaming each week. Do we long to understand, or just spectate? Serial killers now seem as antiquated as bell-bottoms and rotary phones, having largely been replaced by the mass shooter. With DNA evidence having advanced in leaps and bounds, the days when frustrated or abused or mentally-unwell men could dump plastic-wrapped bodies in remote fields, armed with bleach and gaffer’s tape and a beaten-up windowless van, seem to have passed. But here again is that almost-nostalgic and always-haunting specter of old technology - the stark crime scene photography, the videos with the tracking errors rolling furiously across the frame, the case files in that same blank era-specific government style of forms and evidence. The garbled voices on static-swarmed tapes. On this last, it probably isn’t an accident that so many of these series’ opening credits highlight reel-to-reel machines or bulky tape recorders. They communicate that era as much as a ski-mask or a blood-stained linoleum kitchen floor does, an Underworld overflowing with dead voices and dead ephemera. We discuss these cases at work, over the dinner table, or online as if we’re Dunning-Kruger sleuths bound to untangle the obscured details where professionals failed. No one ever asked us to do this.
It often occurs to me how much of a cliche this is to note, but at times I do feel as if I’m a conduit for some other force, just the vessel to perform the automatic writing needed to will these creations of ours into being. Sometimes I wonder if this is due to my struggles with mental illness; another stock role is the artist afraid to be treated for mental health issues for fear they might lose their muse. This thankfully wasn’t at all the case for me. In North Carolina, I recorded and released music at an unhealthy rate, and eventually suffered a breakdown significant enough that it signaled to me that I should relocate somewhere new and begin fresh. Since securing proper treatment and medication (which was a struggle that lasted a half-decade), I find I take more time with my work, that the inspiration is just as frenzied and multivalent while I make effort to perfect what I’m doing and only share what seems to be the best distillation of the vision. The music in North Carolina was darker for this reason, more glaringly lo-fi for this reason, but additionally, if ever a thin place existed on this planet, it was Burlington, North Carolina. A small city of run-down industry and stately old homes notable only for its history in the hosiery trade, Burlington harbored its own share of unsolved murders, explosions, serial killings, infernos, rumors of hauntings and cryptozoological monsters, and other phantom occurrences. We drew from that well significantly, to the point of self-parody. Even our home, the lovely but faded 1910 farmhouse-style house once owned by a mill owner’s family, held muse-like potential in its myriad shadows and spaces. To me, Lost Trail is the sound of that house.
There are other places I’ve run across that have held that sense of eerie stillness, that edge-of-the-world remove. Baltimore, for example, has always struck me as a dark and haunted city, a city perpetually beneath a black cloud with little light seeping through. That’s not a judgment of anyone who makes Baltimore home, but it’s an aura I’ve always sensed there. In an entirely different yet similar manner is how Los Angeles felt to me upon first visiting, a city that really does feel isolated, on a precipice at the edge of a continent, where everything seemed small and at great remove to me, like Lowrey’s matchstick men. Knowing some of LA’s history, of Manson and the ’92 riots, deepens the sensation of LA being a mysterious place half out of time, a city perpetually in slow-motion, languid and dreamlike. Approaching town from the north along I-5, you’re abruptly dropped from stark mountain wilderness into a massive expanse of humanity from ocean to desert, and the sensation is overwhelming. The best example of what I always think of as ‘great LA art’, from Less Than Zero to films like Chinatown and Nightcrawler, capture this ethereal strangeness of Los Angeles perfectly.
I grew up partially on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a singular place to come of age, where employment and even governmental decisions meant a very clear class divide between the tourists and the locals in the service and hospitality industries, where the off season meant grey and rainy misery and copious substance abuse to escape said bleakness. Internet connection was intermittent, and blackouts where you could hear the slightest whisper anywhere in your neighborhood were common, the roar of the ocean no longer smothered by the ceaseless thrum of electricity. The sheer windiness of the islands made small tasks frequently grueling, and walking barefoot in vegetation was an impossibility considering the prevalence of wild cactus and sand-spurs. I have a photo of my childhood home when it was first built in 1973, by the original owners. In the image, it’s the only house visible in a landscape of endless gentle dunes. While I was being raised, this neighborhood grew claustrophobic with tourist rentals. My childhood and teenage years were spent driving around aimlessly in shitty old domestic sedans with friends, getting high in lifeguard stands at 2am, hanging with the crazy and the homeless behind the 7-Eleven, finding some backroad where one could safely share the backseat with the girlfriend of moment. We skateboarded recklessly down steep hills and fumbled at surfing with battered old boards. Tourist season meant lethal traffic and wealthy accountants and lawyers from northern Virginia in khaki shorts and Tommy Bahama clapping along with bad Jimmy Buffet cover bands, willing themselves into their own treasured alternate reality of some lame stereotypical Caribbean hideaway. I hold little affection for that part of the world. When I left for college, I attended a school as far away as possible while remaining in-state for tuition purposes. When I had to briefly move home again after leaving school early, I felt I’d never escape for good. My mother still lives in that home, and my love for her and that house are distinct from where they’re located. As I grow older, I keep waiting to feel some reluctant affection for the area. But I don’t.
For my mother, the city in Massachusetts she’d always lived in or near was the place she had to flee, and I’m still glad she did, for her own personal needs and for the futures of myself and my brother. I know now that staying there would’ve resulted in very bleak outcomes to all of our lives, because I’ve seen it in the lives of the family members who remain. However, in terms of revisionist history, I’m positive that I continually touch up my memories of Westfield to near-perfection, a near-idyllic childhood that couldn’t exist, not in the circumstances I was raised in then (again, no details here). It’s always the summer I imagine when I think of early-to-mid 90s Westfield. It’s a constantly-revolving carousel of Freez-Pops and cookouts at the neighbors’ place, catching fireflies in jars and holding sparklers aloft in cool darkness, hiding secret notes in the loose brick of the backyard hibachi my grandfather built, its gorgeously-violent thunderstorms interrupting Tee-Ball games where we spent most of our time at the concession stand devouring Ring-Pops and Big League Chew. We’d disappear into the city on our BMX bikes in the morning and return home for dinner, parents flicking porch lights to let us know we had to head inside, the heart-rending blue twilight that I’ve never seen quite the same anywhere but southern New England draped over the neighborhood. I think of moldy rec rooms in old houses, hours of MTV back when MTV played videos, knowing that if you missed your favorite one it would come back around and show up again in an hour or so. Dads grilled burgers and hot dogs in the mouths of oil-smelling barns and drank bottles of Molson and threw horseshoes as dusk fell. John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, always blasting from someone’s Peavey PA system. Primer-grey Camaros and log trucks rolling up Granville Road as we watched the LA riots, OJ’s white bronco, the senseless ruins in Oklahoma City and Waco. We swam in above-ground pools, we laid on blankets by the duck pond in the huge city park or at the Japanese teahouse. We always came home scabbed-over, mosquito-bitten, having spent hours exploring abandoned industrial ruins, or having played Rescue 911 with our bikes as ambulances deep in the woods and fields, or having lingered at the variety store, buying candy and stealing magazines. I was eleven when we left and in painful, unrequited first love with the girl across the street. I was awkward and unpopular at the YMCA day camp. I despised my older brother, a real dick (he’s not a dick anymore, in fact he’s quite the incredible person). The city library, a marble and wrought iron-bedecked mansion bequeathed to the city long ago, was a calming refuge from expectations. That was summer. There’s no returning, but the past, again, is always with us, even the one we invent.
Did any of this exist? Did all of it exist? What can you say, when contemplating the nature of time and memory, of our self-revisions, the tricks our minds play on us to make life bearable? Yes and no. We mourn disappearing eras and places like we mourn any disappearing person. A fragment of us is lost.
I found a measure of this again in a return to a mountain climate, in Boone, in college, where you could stand outside at night and watch the tiny spark-like specks of campfires in the hills, where a friend and I once set out at 2am to find an overlook that peered down upon a lightning storm, and sat speechless in awe for an hour, where another friend and I on a similar late-night drive once watched a forest fire burning out of control along the side of a mountain, as if a plane had crashed un-noticed. I loved Boone then, where I worked sometimes at a black metal and noise-music focused record store, sometimes at a campus coffee shop. But that Boone is non-existent now. Even the neighborhood where I lived in an off-campus apartment has been plowed under to widen a highway. So it must go.
So yes, places and their specific moods. My mother has always harbored a small psychic talent she feels is hereditary, passed down from her own mother, but the closest I’ve come to the same is this sensitivity to places, all the inexplicable ways they feel different from one another, and how difficult that is to express in words. I consider the complicated Memphis I love, and what it may be like if we ever adopt our own child, as we plan to eventually. Will it be as it is now? More and more like Detroit was a few years back, with vast open prairies in the midst of a supposedly-major city? A few years ago, driving through the industrial wastes of North Memphis, I passed a vacant lot that had become a horse corral. Nature versus civilization, always present, always beneath the surface. This is modern living. We treasure the gritty, working-class underdog nature of Memphis, but with it comes crime, crushing poverty, pollution, misery, and failure. We fight gentrification, but would we rather the current wreckage? This city is divided in such a way that both the tourist and the hipster Memphis intermingle not at all with what makes up eighty percent of the city, the Third World desolation just a few blocks away. I adore Memphis, it saved my life when I needed it, and my career besides. Where the North Carolina music scene was largely hostile or just indifferent to us, treating us as outsiders for all sorts of pointless reasons aside from our music, Memphis was instantly welcoming and kind to us, and we’ve in turn helped to build an incredible scene here. With this comes a sense of homecoming and belonging. But it remains true that a city which excludes most of its inhabitants, the jobless and the gang-aligned, the addicted and homeless, from its scene can’t be said to be succeeding as an arts hotspot. There’s much work to do here. Loving Memphis is knowing its limitations, and pushing back. Many here are resigned to the unchanging nature of what Memphis is; hopefully we stand in contrast. We have to be more than barbecue and Beale Street and the Civil Rights Museum, by a long stretch.
I believe everybody is capable of, and should engage in, at least some semblance of existential reflection. If we have a purpose as a species, it’s to try to better understand our nature and the nature of the world around us. To me, the purpose of art has always been to find new ways of understanding and explaining said natures, both interior and exterior. It’s how we interpret the world and interpret our sense of it for others. I am, by somewhat-regrettable nature, a melodramatic and big-hearted person, unashamed of expressing messy emotions and sentimentality, dismissive of hipsters so terrified of feeling that they trade only in sarcasm, cynicism, and irony instead of sincerity. It’s there in writers who call so much of our kind of music ‘humorless’, as if art should always be in jest, a lighthearted game where no one admits feeling a goddamned thing. I am not that kind of artist, I am heart on sleeve and I live completely, attempting to feel as much as possible and share as much as possible while I’m here, because for all we know, THAT’S the one purpose of living. We have no guarantees of an afterlife, so this is perhaps all we get. Perhaps this is reflected in the music, its genre-agnostic approach and messy haphazard nature. It sounds like I feel, I sometimes consider. I don’t live my life halfway, bitter, sneering. If I drive to the supermarket for bread, I’m gonna listen to something epic enough that it’s like I’m a Viking heading into a battle in which I’m badly outmatched, but determined to make a last inspired stand. Life’s too short to read meaningless trifles, listen to meaningless songs, watch meaningless films. Whatever that means to you, so be it, but I do not nor will I ever believe that it’s snobbery to dismiss lesser forms of art in exchange for deeper experiences. Other people may pull whatever they please out of facile art, I’m not judging escapism for its own sake, but I hear too much of a ticking clock in my head for that, so when I see corporate entities insisting that surface-level, factory-pressed baubles are actually artistic genius, Emperor’s New Clothes style, I can’t help but react with loathing. Company-calibrated formula trash is what it will always unapologetically seem to me, whether you find that patronizing of me or just perceptive. Calling it ‘brilliant’ doesn’t make it so. It’s herd-thinking encouraged by marketing firms intended to make pariahs out of those who rebel, and it saddens me to see many otherwise-progressive people collapsing into such a blatant trap. Art is not a lighthearted background affair for me, never will be. Maybe that makes me sadder as a person, in my outlook, but I honestly feel that it makes me a fuller person, whatever that means. Nietzsche’s last breakdown was set in motion by his witnessing of a horse being brutally beaten by its keeper. I can relate to this. Sometimes the weight of the world around us is just too much to bear.
(On the contrary, though, I don’t particularly believe in ‘guilty pleasures’ as a concept when enjoying art…so like most human beings walking the planet, I’m a bit contradictory in some of my ideologies.)
Interestingly, I’ve earned a reputation in certain circles for my meme curating skills, but despite the humor often involved, I take this all very seriously. Amusing as they often are, I feel memes are the closest semblance we have of a modern avant-garde, a surrealist expression tied to this time and place. I collect them and share them because I think they say something important about this era.
So much of what we create is inseparable from who we fundamentally are, our desires and preoccupations, our philosophies and past experiences. My love for animals sustains me, instills in me a consistent sense of compassion and empathy for the victimized and the tossed-aside, and perhaps this is why I venerate animals in our art so often. Birds, especially, are a prosaic symbology for so many untidy human experiences, from freedom and exploration to an expression of song and self. This in turn reflects a lust for travel that has long fascinated us as well, all the tropes and semiotics and sensations of motion, of maps and atlases (I often browsed Rand McNally Road Atlases for pleasure in my youth, entranced by the iconography of maps and the names of faraway cities). America is entranced with the idea of travel and motion, and each type of building or sign or landscaping associated with car travel will always stir me deeply. We always long for some imagined hiatus from the everyday, the banal, and in America, this means highways, diners, and rest stops. Whole books could be filled with the graffiti of rest-stop bathroom stalls. This is our semblance of culture, built from the working-class immigrants of other cultures and a complex past relationship with exploration. And juxtaposing familiar consumer banality with stirring music lends it the weight of a holy scripture. There’s no way Godspeed’s ‘Chart #3’ would carry much as visceral impact if you excised the sample. Compelling art often comes down to questions of context, of foreground and background.
And from birdsong to human song, as well. Ironically, for a primarily-instrumental musician who cares little for his own limited singing voice, I absolutely adore close harmony singing, the conjuring of an entirely singular new voice from the voice of many. It’s one of our culture’s oldest traditions, and indeed our species’, raising our voice collectively in song, to comment on life as we live it or to openly dream of better, to lament darkness or invoke a scant sense of light. Sacred Harp singing and Melanesian choirs have turned up in our work now and again; they are pure, uncomplicated expressions of emotion that I find myself enthused by, and touched to build music around. It’s the essence of who we are as a people, the many embodying the one collective spirit, the community.
It’s perhaps even more categorically ironic, then, that as a musician I became a Quaker in later life, finding stillness and peace in the expression of potential divinity lurking within us all, finding calming purpose and centering in the practice of communal silence, the only place you’ll find so many people sitting silently together for a considerable length of time. It retrains how your mind reacts to the presence of others, how it responds to silence itself. But though I am a loyal member of two Quaker meetings, there will always be that earth-child side of myself, consulting the Tarot in times of stress, mulling the potential for any number of afterlife scenarios (I’ve long since concluded that the idea of eternal life in ‘paradise’ is just as terrifying to me as the prospect of eventually dying), listening to testimonies of those who’ve claimed to nearly die and have returned from some enchanting Xanadu, and hoping against hope for this to be reality rather than the blank death of matter science insists is likely so. I think about trances, astral projection, those who claim to levitate or enter adjacent realms of thought and being. We know so little about this world around us. We talk of synchronicities and patterns, we undertake trials by mental fire with the Ganzfield Method, the God Helmet. We (including myself, I’ll admit) turn to hallucinogenic drugs for answers, and endure experiences both positive and negative but almost always educational and cleansing. Who can explain why the sight of the last bit of orange twilight on certain evenings makes me feel I’m passing through different planes of existence? Or that eclipses and massive thunderstorms make me feel incredibly small and helpless, at the mercy of forces well beyond my comprehension? I am living a life that no one else can fully inhabit or understand, as we all are, driving along or walking along, brushing alongside brothers and sisters in humanity we will never know or understand. Even those we love most, those closest to us…we have no evidence that they’re part of any reality, that they actually exist outside of how we perceive them, or even that they see/taste/hear/feel things as we do. It’s this loneliness that seems an intrinsic component of the human experience, and maybe the source of all art: the struggle to communicate, and the isolation in knowing the limits therein. I scan a shortwave radio for voices that I might incorporate into the tableaux of my self-expression, but who’s really on the other end of those voices?
To ourselves, even, we remain a mystery. I am deathly afraid of drowning despite my fascination with fire. I hear the term ‘disaster taxon’, and I don’t think humanity will fit the bill after a few more years of these crises. I hear the term ‘outsider’ artist, and though I think of the othering and fetishizing inherent in such a term, the problematic nature of those divisions, I can understand it, from the viewpoint of this artist who feels beyond society and its aspirations and diversions in so many ways. I can try to communicate how certain cosmic passages of live Grateful Dead recordings seem, to me, like conversations with the very elements of the universe around us, and be told they’re dorky and boring by someone who will never hear what I hear. I don’t make country music but the pedal steel guitar is the most beautiful instrument I’ve ever heard, and it’s a honky-tonk pile of cliches to so many others. I read philosophy and feel a kinship with these ideas and the ways of not just living in the world but experiencing it and thinking of HOW you experience it, from the Gnostics to the Situationists, and I’m told this is pretension, that the art I make is pretension. I say pretension is horseshit. Pretension is a term of laziness offered by people too frightened and insecure to feel and experience and reflect deeply. I take accusations of pretension as proof that I’m achieving my artistic aims. No work that means something is unpretentious. Still, I tend to feel I have little choice. No matter how much I read or study or think or feel or speculate about this universe and this life, I think anyone who believes in free will is an idiot. If the past happens over and over again, it fails to be the past but instead becomes predestination, a journey we’re always on towards something unseen in the distance. Perhaps there’s a comfort in this. Beyond all our understanding there are questions upon questions.
By any measure I’m a successful musician in this highly niche corner of the scene, all save for financial prosperity. I still long to score films and truly marry my love for the visual with my love for the sonic. I’ve managed to brazenly approach numerous musicians I highly admire on social media, and have found that instead of the reluctance to engage I once imagined, almost all have been willing to pitch in somehow. We’ve toured most of the US, though I long to tour Europe, where our music is more popular and bands are treated better as a rule. I’ve made it abundantly clear to many skeptics that instrumental music has layers of meaning and can be ‘about’ so many things. We’ve moved from willfully lo-fi recording to broadening our sound so that its become more accurately ‘mid-fi with lo-fi touches for effect’. I have a committed partner with a knack for perceptive and insightful field recording, who doesn’t mind pitching in on my oddball experiments. I approach sound with a sense of texture, color, and composition in a way I’m quite chuffed at having developed, that I don’t think is reflected in any other sound artist working today. We’ve made at least a slight difference in making some peoples’ lives a fraction easier, or at least more enjoyably sad. Music takes us elsewhere, though only to a point - in the end, I believe that at the root of everything life and death are the only real artistic subjects, by intention or subconscious. I’m a lifer in this game, like it or not, and in a way, the name Nonconnah is fitting - we chose it as a geographic reference to our new home, but Nonconnah Creek (Nonconnah being Choctaw for ‘seer or prophet’, which I didn’t learn until recently) is hardly aesthetically pleasing, and its history is plagued with suburban over-development, unsolved murders, toxic waste dumping, bridge collapses, all sorts of tawdry occurrences. It befits us, then! Often fans at live shows inform us somewhat apologetically that they’d fallen asleep during our performance, but I never take this as anything but praise. Music for sleep is a perfect distinction. Couple that with our sense of place, time, and memory, and such are the ingredients we bake with.
I mentioned that when I reflect back on my childhood in Westfield, it tends to be the summer I imagine. One exception exists: if you live in any area that sees heavy snowfall, you’ll understand the sensation of waking one late autumn morning and knowing by the silence enveloping the house that a first snow has fallen. You’ll amble yawning over to your window, and a wonderland of endless white will greet you. Musicians often claim they’re chasing a sound in their head that’s impossible to ever actually record; I remain a musician who believes that the silence of a first snowfall on a New England morning is the most inscrutable and affecting sound I will ever know. An absence creating a presence.
One day when I was maybe eight years old, I glanced at the pedal of my grandmother’s old-fashioned sewing machine and wondered if it might be possible to run an instrument through that curious little box, and what it might sound like. It’s 2021, I’m thirty-seven years old, and very little has changed.
9:58 AM, December 29th, 2021