The personal computer has forever changed not only the way people consume music, but also the way they create it. In much the same way that the camera enabled people to create works of visual art without being constrained by the limits of physical dexterity, a contemporary musician can use software to create, manipulate and mix sound to create musical compositions.
The music that Baltimore electronic composer Jason Urick has been creating with his laptop is difficult to categorize, but in both his previous ensemble Wzt Hearts (pronounced “Wet Hearts”) and on his new solo release Husbands (released 10/06/09 on Thrill Jockey), his work has been consistently compelling. Recently, he spoke to us about the art of deconstructing a melody, having a long artistic attention span, and the unspeakable genius of Nicolas Cage.
Jason Urick – The Eternal Return (Right click on the link to download a track from the new album.)
AT LENGTH: For those unfamiliar with your work, could you describe the music you create and what you use to create it?
JASON URICK: Well, the second part is a little easier. I guess as far as the music I create, I would say it probably would be considered ambient or experimental. I definitely think it’s in the realm of electronic music. That would be the easiest large umbrella I couldn’t find a way to wriggle out of. But in general, it’s just kind of what I’ve done for a long time. There are definitely artists within the ambient, abstract electronic field that have led me in that direction, but I feel like other things have seeped in. And the tools I use to make it tie into this. I never really properly learned an instrument growing up – I mean, I had my time in junior high school with the guitar, but I wasted that trying to learn “Crazy Train” and never really learned the fundamentals – so I didn’t really pick up music until just after high school. I bought a really weird synthesizer, or at least it was weird to me. I knew the dude in Pavement had a weird analog synthesizer, and I started listening to stuff like Tortoise and Faust and became fascinated with all the weird sounds that I couldn’t really place, which didn’t sound like a guitar or a keyboard as I knew it. I bought a Roland Juno 6 and pretty quickly I was like, “Alright, now I just need to get a band.” So I had some punks and weirdos making music with me for a while. After I moved to Chicago, I didn’t have a band with me anymore, so I just started playing around with tape machines and out-of-tune field recordings and basically holding down three keys on a synth, but when I got to the computer, it felt natural and easy. It was the first time I was able to get out the stuff that was in my head. It’s just always been my medium, and if you’re working with a computer it’s electronic music – there’s just no way around it. My music ends up sounding abstract to most of the people who don’t share the same language. I feel like through the years I’ve swallowed so much music, I forget what’s weird to people and what’s a regular pop song. I love it all, but you sort of go with the intention of making music and ideally I’m not alienating people. Hopefully it will speak to a larger group, but that’s pretty much dictated by who gets it.
AL: Is the band you’re referring to Wzt Hearts?
JU: The band I was talking about formerly was the band I had in school. We never played in shows. We were just three 19 year-olds and a 30 year-old Philipino drummer. We would just drink Heinekens and play music once a week. It wasn’t until Wzt Hearts when I had the first real band and the only real band I’ve ever been in. When I moved to Baltimore I started collaborating with people, and Sean, the Wzt Hearts drummer, came up with the idea for this one-off show with me, him and Jeff Donaldson, who was the other steady member of the band. It started off as a one-off, but we kind of understood each other’s language and it lasted about four years or so.
AL: You put out a couple of pretty well-regarded records.
JU: Yeah, it was one of those bands that the press liked, but it still meant going to weird cities and playing for four people. We would always have one kid in every city and he was always “I couldn’t get my friends to come. I’m sorry.” But it was a really awesome experience. Before Wzt Hearts, I had chances to release stuff on smaller labels, but always found a way to second-guess my way out of it. I’d want to do something better, but when I finally had other people pushing and it wasn’t just my own self-doubt holding it back, it was nice to finally go through the process of putting out and releasing a record and seeing what would happen with that.
AL: So this is your first full length solo release since Wzt Hearts, right?
JU: Yeah. I had two online only EPs that I put out in 2000 or so, but never really came out as proper releases. This record was stuff I had started working on when I was still in Wzt Hearts, where I had come up with some things while manipulating sound and I would be like “This would work,” or I’d be trying it out and it wouldn’t and I’d put it to the side. But when I stopped playing with Wzt Hearts, I still had the urge to do some stuff, so I went back to these sketches and sound sets and decided to see what I could do with them. So the record just came out of that, though I wasn’t even sure it was going to come out. I sent it around to a handful of people and there was a weird email mess up, because five months after I sent it out I got an email from Bettina [Richards, founder of Thrill Jockey Records] saying “Hey, I guess you’re not anxious to do it, but we really want to do the record.” [Laughs.] I guess nobody else wants it, so it’s yours.
AL: It’s interesting that you started recordings some of this stuff while you were in Wzt Hearts, because it doesn’t sound that drastically different from the stuff you did there. Would you say that fans of Wzt Hearts would also like this record?
JU: Yeah, I would think so. My process never really changed. Wzt Hearts isn’t an improvised band – it’s hard to say you’re fully improvised when you’re working with a set of sounds on a laptop – but you’re still feeding off each other. But the sound and the process that I used with the new material are very similar. The only difference is that I don’t have that other person to dictate where I’m going to move my own sounds. But yeah, I think in general, other than the absence of drums, it sort of falls in line with a lot of the electronics in Wzt Hearts’ releases.
AL: I’ve seen you describe your work on this record as “ghosted, fragmented melodies,” which I thought was an interesting way of talking about it. What makes the pieces of a melody more interesting to you than a more straightforward or whole melodic structure?
JU: I think I like a lot of straight up well-crafted pop and folk music, which is very direct. Maybe it’s because when I try to do something like that I don’t feel like I have the language or the skill set to do something like Van Dyke Parks or some of the amazing songcrafters. What I can do is take a small motif or melody and see how many ways I can twist it. Most of the stuff that really got me excited when I was moving out of punk rock and getting into weirder stuff were bands like Oval or US Maple, Beefheart – you’d still have this melodic content but it had been changed. US Maple to me is like taking a normal rock sound, smashing it on the ground, and then taking the pieces and putting it back together in a really interesting way.
AL: I like Storm & Stress for that exact reason.
JU: When I lived in Chicago, one of the greatest things was being able to see them play a bunch of times, and US Maple. There was just a really great scene for people thinking like that. Storm & Stress specifically were such a huge influence on me at the time. I was 19 and geeking out at their shows, blown away at how they approached this rock band thing. Everything [from a traditional rock sound] was there, but it was all different and exciting. And I think it just carried over into the electronic stuff that I liked, which had a really deep and tough sensibility to it, but it was not presenting to you in a way that you’re used to receiving it. It really affected me. I put them on the same line with people who write pretty pop stuff. It’s just a progression of a way of doing it.
AL: Speaking of pop stuff, and fragmenting melodies, you very literally fragment one specific melody with the track “Let There Be Love,” which is just samples of the Bee Gees song of the same name, right?
JU: Yeah, pretty much two or three 1-second samples. I don’t think they’ll ever, ever come across them, so I think in a legal sense I’m pretty safe. I’m a huge fan of early Bee Gees stuff and created that song, not as a joke, but I just kept listening to this song over and over, and one day I was just sort of bored and brought a couple of samples of it and started playing around with it, just to see what would happen, and the song just built out of that. I wrestled back and forth with wanting to put it on the record, and decided to after all.
AL: It’s such a pretty song, what you do with it. It still has a bit of the color or feel of the original. When you listen to the two you can tell that they’re related, but with such a different end result.
JU: Well, it’s definitely easy when you have a really pretty jumping off point, I guess. For the longest time I didn’t do much sampling. For some reason it didn’t excite me. I think I just started to realize that no matter how much you twist something, there’s something that remains. I try not to go too crazy, just layering on effect and effect and effect. I like to sort of see what you can do with simple processes on a source recording and still retain this certain soul of the original thing. You can twist it out of recognition, whether it be a bit of guitar from the sample of a song, but I like to still feel the essence of the initial sample still in there.
AL: Speaking of eponymously named songs, the album is apparently named in tribute to the Cassavetes movie Husbands.
JU: In a sense, yeah. It was actually a name that me and Mike Haleta from Wzt Hearts were pushing for the name of our last record early on, but it got shot down. Mike had turned me on to the movie Husbands right around the time we were recording that and somehow I ended up with a video cassette of the movie that I think is stilled owed back to him. [Laughs] I think it’s still around here somewhere. It just seemed one of the those movies that I just wanted to watch over and over late at night. The more I sat with the title and the more I watched the movie, the more I became obsessed with elements of the it. So when the time came that the record was being worked on, all these things seemed to line up and it made sense to give the movie an unintentional, or semi-intentional tribute. It wasn’t like I sat down and decided to write a soundtrack to this movie. It’s just something that’s been a fascination of mine for some time, so I thought I’d give it the nod now that nobody can tell me not to call it that.
AL: It has that famously long bar scene…
JU: Yeah, that’s specifically the one that sort of stuck out with me. I feel like it’s one of those things in music that I like, the idea of re-contextualizing melody or structure. It’s rewarding if you stick around long enough. I guess I have a long attention span. I like things that are almost grueling at times and finding the beauty in that, and realizing why Cassavetes wanted that scene to go on seemingly forever. You question it at times, but at the end you’re like “Wow, that really had an impact.”
AL: There can be a really great delayed gratification effect with some things that seem difficult, or where something collapses, only to have something beautiful come out of it at the end.
JU: Exactly. Exactly. And hopefully with this record, the name tipping its hat to that and the cover with its obvious reference, I feel like I’m playing with fire in a sense. You hope it comes off as a tribute, but you worry that you’re saying “In Husbands, there’s this really rewarding thing, and you should reward yourself by suffering through an 18-minute song of descending synth tones, and it’s going to be just as good.” It’s sort of tricky. I wrestle with whether people will understand that it’s a tribute in a sense, but it’s also semi-self-effacing. But I don’t know, I still haven’t found a way to feel comfortable talking about it, I guess.
AL: Changing gears, when I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking about the kind of dance music that came out of Baltimore, B-More Club, which is known for being staccato and chopped-up and kind of fragmented.
AL: And Dan Deacon is probably Baltimore’s biggest indie export right now, and he’s known for having this disorienting cut-and-paste sound. Do you think there’s that feel in the music scene in Baltimore? Do you feel part of something that’s going on like that down there?
JU: It’s hard to say. I guess it’s a little different from the inside then how it’s presented outwardly. You would have stuff like Beach House and Dan and Wzt Hearts at the same show, which actually happened. It was more that it was just a small city, and there were disparate elements right alongside each other. At the warehouse I live in, we threw these three big shows with K-Swift, who was one of the bigger club djs before she died, unfortunately, and Dan played at the second one of those before he really blew up. And I don’t know how much Dan had really heard Baltimore Club before he moved here – I think he already had his style in place – but it was pretty funny to see these two worlds next to each other. I guess the energy is there and if you live in Baltimore, Baltimore Club permeates the radio and you either learn to appreciate it – and I think everybody should because I think it’s amazing music – or you don’t. But it’s tough to say how much anybody has a direct influence on anybody’s sound here. It’s more a general attitude of people here in the scene feeling like they can sorta do what they want and still have a really supportive community behind them. So I think this idea of it being a utopia is off-base. When Dan blew up and this small group of friends came up with him with the Wham City thing, that tagged us as sort of spazzy and neon. We would tour around and people in Europe would ask us what Wham City is like. I think they have these weird visions in their head of Baltimore as being a far out party or something.
AL: Not all the time, at least.
JU: Not all the time. There are these other elements, but it’s all pretty tight-knit. It’s a great city and I love it a lot. It has this great scene that didn’t always exist in the way it’s depicted in the press. In a way, I think it was way better than all these fantasies that people had. But it’s a great city to be a musician in, and I don’t ever feel like I need to lay some beats down to have anyone come to my shows, but certain things will always be in favor on a Friday night, and the stuff I make isn’t usually going to be it.
AL: Speaking of shows, are you planning to tour in support of the record?
JU: Yeah, that’s something I’ve been slacking on a bit. I’m going to be doing a European tour with Ecstatic Sunshine in early 2010, but we’re still waiting on the booking guy for the dates. I’ll hopefully play some East Coast shows sparingly up until I go to Europe. I’ll probably be in Europe myself from mid-December to whenever the tour happens, so for a couple of months. I’m trying to play more shows there than over here.
AL: They seem to be more receptive to this sort of thing than America.
JU: Yes. Also, the idea of sleeping on a floor in Bloomington and paying ten dollars is a little less alluring than sleeping on the floor in the Hague for ten Euros. It’s just a different floor. Touring with Wzt Hearts was an amazing experience, but by the end of it you’re just ready to be done. Touring in America, until you get to a certain point, is a pretty depressing proposition.
AL: And everything is so spread out.
JU: Yeah, once you get off the East Coast. The East Coast is great because living in Baltimore, New York’s close, Philly’s close, then there’s Boston, Providence, some cool little towns in the South. I haven’t been to the West Coast in that capacity, but that’s something I’d like to do. It seems like out there you don’t have to go more than a few hours before you get to the next music hotbed. But once you get to the Midwest, it can be a little grueling on you.
AL: You’ve named your album and one of your songs after other artistic works, which made me imagine your track “National Treasure” as a tribute to the crazy acting genius of Nicolas Cage. Can you confirm or deny my wild, baseless conjecture?
JU: I can definitely confirm in a sense, yes. That movie is something I was obsessed with for a little while. It blew my mind in so many different ways, both good and bad. Just everything about it. Nicolas Cage alone can do that. That movie seems like his pinnacle.