Douglas Kirby makes music as big and strange and self-assured as America itself — fitting for a musician who has spent significant time in all four time zones but still finds his way back to his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as often as he can. And if you don’t believe it, check out his website, a sprawling digital scavenger hunt full of experimental pop and outsider art computer graphics, all mapped to an idiosyncratic atlas of the United States.
Kirby spent most of the past decade recording with the well-regarded Philly band National Eye, but this fall released Shale and Sandstone, an ambitious debut under the banner of his solo project, From a Fountain. The album should find fertile ground among fans of Sufjan Stevens, The Flaming Lips, and maybe the ghost of Woody Guthrie.
We recently spoke with Kirby about his upcoming tour (including a stop at CMJ on the 22nd), his love of the album format, and time-traveling Native Americans out to rewrite history.
From a Fountain – Rise, All You Moderns (Click on the link to download a track from the album Shale and Sandstone.)
At Length: One of the things that drew me into the new album is that it feels like such a personal, almost idiosyncratic project. How much of From a Fountain is just you and how much of it is the product for collaboration with others?
Douglas Kirby: It’s almost all me. The idea behind the website was to serve as a repository for everything that I work on, collected in one place and presented in an interesting way. So it’s mostly me, though I have friends come play whenever it makes sense. But a lot of it is just me and the computer.
AL: If it is mostly you, why did you pick the name From a Fountain instead of just recording under your own name?
DK: I thought it was important to give the work a title, to give the work its own identity. I feel that deeply about creativity — that I can’t lay claim to all of it. So keeping it separate with the name, it feels right to say “This is me,” and doing this fully. It gives me freedom and space to have me and my thing.
AL: The way you’ve presented this work is very spatial, not only in the way songs are laid out on the website, but also in the way they’re tied into various locations in the U.S. Were these all places that are significant to you in some way or are they all tied into the music somehow?
DK: They’re less associated with the music and more associated with me and my life. Definitely each place is very significant for me, in the same way that each song has been significant as well. So rather than each song being tied to place, it’s just a way of presenting all of that experience together, into something that’s beautiful. I mean, I wanted it to be beautiful, I wanted it to tie together and to wrap together.
AL: Each song on the website is embedded in a digital collage of images and computer art, with a bit of animation that activates when you find the track on the page. How involved were you with the art design of the website?
DK: I drew each page. Each one is kind of a sketch of my memory of the place. I do them kind of quickly, using an old graphics program (sort of an obsolete version of Fireworks) that’s very simple, and I keep the colors simple and I just go and that’s what it’s supposed to be — that place as remembered by me. Then I tie it to a song which may or may not link up with it really intimately, but it’s still a place for it to fit.
AL: There are a million bands out there who present their music as just a list of tracks to click on in some sort of streaming player, but there is a lot of fun to be had in discovering your music on the website. I especially like the squirrel that leaps when you mouse over it and the quiet bedroom scene with the animated caution traffic light seen through the window. It’s almost like a video game to explore.
DK: Yeah, that’s in the bedroom grew up in.
AL: Is it really?
DK: I’m actually staying in it in Sioux Falls right now as we rehearse for this tour, so I’m sleeping in that bedroom. But that’s the idea. I have written and recorded all these songs I want people to hear. I want to present them in a way that isn’t just an album or a disc or a list, and this is how it’s taken shape over the last five or six years. I have been happy with how it’s grown and grown. It feels like an interesting thing to present to people.
AL: Speaking of Sioux City, most people can’t help but mention where you come from when they write about you.
DK: It’s actually Sioux Falls [laughs].
AL: Sioux Falls, excuse me.
DK: That’s a common mistake. Obama came before the elections for a rally, probably exhausted from the road, everyone is cheering and going crazy in the Sioux Falls arena. And he was like, “well, it’s great be here in Sioux City.”
AL: Oh, no.
DK: This hush came over the whole arena and everyone was stunned. But we’re used to that. That’s a very common thing if you live in Sioux Falls. But it was very uncomfortable.
AL: So have you lived there as an adult, recently, or was it just like your childhood home?
DK: Yeah, I have lived there off and on in the past two years.
AL: How much of Sioux Falls finds its way into your music? Does it color the sound of what you do?
DK: Probably. Being here, I feel embraced by the city that I grew up in. It’s a unique place that not many people are in the country have experience with.
DK: And so I always try to re-immerse in this — in the uniqueness of here whenever I’m around. The simplest way for me to describe it is that culturally, Sioux Falls tends to be about ten or twenty years behind the rest of the country. Less so now with the Internet, but certainly when I grew up it was behind the coasts and the more populated areas so that was a unique kind of experience.
AL: It also seems that the cultural geography of Sioux Falls and the Great Plains might have informed the narrative for Shale and Sandstone. Can you tell me a little bit about the concept of the album?
DK: The idea occurred to me in the early stages of writing the music. As I started to write the words, the story came out of native Americans persisting into the future as a group, waiting to invent time travel, at which point they could go back in time, go to Europe and get antibodies to all the European illnesses, and go cross the Atlantic and give it to their ancestors, so they would be inoculated. So the first few songs on the album are the story of that journey — the future Native Americans and their encounter with the aboriginal natives and then the response of their ancestors to the offer.
AL: As I mentioned before, the music feels so personal, and yet you choose to delve into these really grandiose concepts and themes. You even talk about some of the songs dealing with confronting the infinite. How do you negotiate where the personal meets these immense concepts?
DK: The story itself erupted from the personal. It sort of popped up, and like I said at the beginning, I don’t lay claim to some of the products of what I do. I was sitting around listening and it was there. And it is very personal, I mean it has to be — it has to come from some personal chunk of stuff within me. And growing up around here with a lot of Native communities and those experiences I’m sure informed that.
AL: Are you still with National Eye or is that just a past project at this point?
DK: I don’t know where we are right now. The last couple of albums I recorded on remotely, but I haven’t been playing with the band.
AL: I see. The last National Eye Record was a concept record, and then your new record as From a Fountain is very high concept, and then even the way you present things on your website uses a larger organizing principle. What attracts you to these overarching narratives and big concepts?
DK: I’m definitely interested in creativity as a whole and unique ways of presenting any art and finding all the links and really going with them instead of just emitting little individual works. It make sense to me to present my work as part of the whole story of making that work, because I have been experiencing that. I have been the one who has been witnessing all this work being made, so to me it is this one big story. So that’s the interest for me, especially with the website because that’s the way I had experienced this.
AL: As I explored the website, wandering through these diverse places and finding these songs dropped here and there, almost like postcards from a life. It definitely gives the effect of being part of the tapestry of a life.
DK: Thank you.
AL: Another section of your website deals with the new record, and for a few tracks, you deconstruct the songwriting process, with early demo versions, separate viola or vocal tracks and lyric sheets there to show how the song was made. Why did you decide to give this behind-the-scenes look at the record?
DK: Because of the way the album came together in the beginning with the story of the natives, I especially wanted to give those songs in their early incarnations, because I felt like that was important to the telling of that story. And then the rest of the little snippets and bits from the songs are really just presented because I think they sound really compelling apart from the thick song that they’re in. They sounded interesting and cool to me, so I just wanted to share them with people.
AL: Some artists are sort of prickly about the idea that you might look behind the curtain and see that the wizard is just this guy from Kansas, and don’t like to show their unfinished work. As a music fan, I like to see evidence of the creative process that you went through to create the finished tracks.
DK: I’m glad that you dialed into that.
AL: So you’re about to go out on tour. What can people expect a From a Fountain show?
DK: I’m also learning what to expect from a From a Fountain show. [Laughs.] These will be the first series of shows that aren’t just me or me and a couple friends. This will be a major band — there’s six of us — with a bunch of my friends from South Dakota. I’m wearing a white alb right now with a peach-colored tunic on top of it, and I have golden eye shadow on because we’re rehearsing and we wanted to be in our clothes for rehearsal.
AL: Oh, that’s great.
DK: So there is definitely a stage component with outfits and lighting. There will be six of us in the core band and then as we travel toward the east we’ll link up with some of my friends and some of them will join the band, so there will be nine of us by the time we get to Brooklyn.
AL: And I’m delighted to hear that because it seems it seems like with this material you could go one way or the other, with either stripped-down personal arrangements or something much bigger.
DK: Yeah, I’ve always felt like Shale and Sandstone especially was so rich with instrumentation that to do it live I wanted a lot of instruments so that’s what we’ll be doing.
AL: Speaking of this tension between the personal and the large-scale, one of the biggest tensions in the industry right now is the one between the album paradigm that has existed for the past 50 years or so, and the digital trend toward releasing songs individually online. As someone who seems to both love the album as an art form but has also found new innovative ways to get individual songs online in a compelling way, do you have any thoughts about this?
DK: I think that albums will always be part of how I think of music. That will be, you know, in my 70 or 80 years of life, I will always have that embedded in me because of when I was born. So as I create I’m sure I will continue to think clumps of songs and how they might fit together, but it will be interesting to see if people who grow up later don’t have that need. There might be all kinds of new ways of shooting out singles or bursts of music. But I don’t feel like a lack of creating possibilty is threatening the album. I don’t feel like we’ve exhausted in any way the concept of a group of songs and what they can get across.