We Are The West on Time, Song as Forum and Flashes of The Specific
In life I’ve found there are certain through lines—strange games of telephone that connect us—which get dug up at odd moments and laid plaintiff in clear view, a live wire which can ignite in the field at any moment. I had one such moment several years ago when I first began graduate school at Columbia. We were holed up in David Plante’s apartment overlooking River Side Drive, with a view of the Hudson. A young, long-haired fellow with a ready smile came over and sat next to me on the sofa. Somehow we got to talking about music. “So.” he said. “What have you been listening to?” I paused, as this seemed the perennial litmus test, and I didn’t want to admit that what peopled my headphones was often outside the circles of what was de rigueur at the moment. “Well,” I said. “I’ve been listening to this Neil Young song on repeat in the park and writing a story about America.” That was it. The connection was cast. It turns out the young man was a musician. “Me too,” he said.
Brett Hool now makes up one part the Los Angeles based duo, We Are The West. WATW is interested in exploring the convergence of sound and space. Together with his musical soul-mate, John Kibler, a talented classical bass player and the second heart of the band, the two often take to the road to record in experimental locations, searching out how the acoustics of place converge with live narrative. The two have performed in storm drains and shipping containers, sheep farms and convents, and most frequently converge in the underground parking garage of an office building on Santa Monica Boulevard the Saturday before each full moon. I recently chatted with Brett and John to discuss time, song as forum and flashes of the specific in their third installment of a four-part album of recordings, an eleven minute suite recorded live in the high desert of New Mexico.
I. HOLDING YOUR BREATH FOR LONGER THAN YOU THINK YOU CAN
ANN DEWITT: That line at the opening of your new song, “gunning after you,” where did that come from? What associations does it have? It’s kind of a metaphor and it’s kind of just a phrase.
BRETT HOOL: We’ve been working on the song for a long time. At this point the words have started changing meaning.
AD: But is it a phrase that you associate with a certain time in your life? Or can you remember the first person that ever said that?
BH: Well, this piece started way back in Bob Holman’s class. It was an exercise in a different persona. There are three main sections, and the original idea was to have each one seem as though it were written by a different person. And the initial impulse in this first section was to have a woman singing that part. But it’s changed meaning. It’s kind of one those things that came out of the ether; I think it’s got a dual meaning going on, which is why I like it. Because obviously it’s threatening.
AD: Well, there’s the line after it: “I’ll shoot you through the window.”
BH: Taking careful aim. But at the same time it’s also a love metaphor. “I’m taking aim at what I want.”
AD: The new track is quite long. It’s almost twelve minutes, much longer than most pop songs, even longer than most of your songs. What is the significance of this? Does it have to do with the epic or a eulogy? Is it related to Santa Fe in some way, the idea of recording in the high desert?
BH: I think, with this piece in particular, it’s sort of like three sides of the same concern. And each one has its own time and place, but it’s really the same story, in my mind at least. And it just takes time for each perspective to have its own place. Otherwise it becomes a little too frenetic. So, if you break it down, each section is the length of a normal song. Or, a normal one of our songs, maybe like three to seven minutes. Some of them are shorter than others. Some of them are longer. And some of them are expansive and some of them are a little more frenetic. And then within that context there are little windows within each one that sometimes are pointing back to a previous section. Sometimes they’re pointing forward to a section that might be coming in the next record. I just had super intense dreams last night—that’s really kind of what it feels like to me when we’re playing, like living a dream. And the great thing about dreams for me is those moments of dream logic: “Yes. I know exactly who I’m talking to right now, because that connects back to this other thing that happened way back when.” And then you wake up and you’re like, “Wait. It connects to what?” In the dream there was a whole backstory that you already knew but it doesn’t exist in your waking brain.
AD: When I saw you last, at the underground parking garage show in LA, you devoted one of the songs you played that night to your friend Tommy who passed. Was that an integral part of writing that song?
BH: To me, songs are never that specific. Songs—I don’t know what the correct terms for them is—if I knew what it was then I probably wouldn’t be as interested in playing them. You could say they’re a vehicle. Tom was a big supporter of us; he used to help out at the garage shows every time and we still use some of his equipment, which is now permanently part of the garage shows. And I think that part of the beauty of songs and the beauty of art is that there’s space for the listener, for the viewer, for the creator, for everybody that is connected to any of those people that are listening to or experiencing the piece. It’s sort of like a forum in which everything can exist at once. Your past can be there. Your future can be there. Your friends can be there. Your loved ones can be there. And to me, when writing a song, there are flashes of the specific. There are flashes of people that you know. David Plante talks about flashes of awareness. It could be just a few words or notes from a song. It’s this flood of association and connection. It’s different every time. And that’s what’s special about our band: we have room within the music, and we don’t really need to compromise anything.
AD: John, you have a daughter too, right?
JOHN KIBLER: Yes, two daughters.
AD: Do you feel that becoming a dad influenced your music?
JK: Definitely. It kind of took things from the theoretical to reality. Before I had kids I had lots of time to theorize about life, death, heavy things. But when kids come in to the picture, that kind of defines heavy things. Seeing kids being born.
AD: I saw some kid at work the other day and he kept saying to his little sister (they must have been all of three): “No. He DIED!” With exclamation. “He DIED! He DIED!” And I was thinking, “Does he even have any concept of that?” I was looking at him in amazement. This is a kid who is already thinking about mortality, and he’s all of three years old.
JK: Yeah. It kind of forces you to review everything you think you know already. Like, “I just squashed a bug.” Is that a big deal? I don’t know. It starts there, and then, like you said, it goes to mortality. But I wanted to say something about song length. The standard song has kind of become three or four minutes, and everyone’s comfortable with those fleeting thoughts, those flashes, as they creep in, and then the song is over and you can check your phone or whatever. The space between songs gives you a second to look around and see where you are. And what I like about us—as you know, Brett writes the words, and I’ve been learning them as we play them—is that we don’t give the audience that opportunity. They’re interested in hearing what’s next but they don’t quite come out of it. It’s like holding your breath for longer than you think you can. There’s not another track to skip forward to, and I’m totally cool with the idea that some people will like it and some people will not.
II. THAT MUST HAVE BEEN BETTER THAN ACID
AD: I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, because I went to see the new Matthew Barney movie, River of Fundament. The composer, Jonathan Bepler, was talking about a similar idea: creating a sonic experience that played with how long you were willing to listen to things. And there were literally three intermissions, so it was like going to an epic play. I think I got home at one in the morning, and I had arrived there at six p.m. The sonic portion of it really interested me. Our generation always gets glibly associated with the idea of having a lesser attention span. Even though we didn’t grow up with social media, we get associated with it. I see it with my students all the time—they’re really airtight with their devices. But I’m finding it interesting that people of our generation are going back and thinking about ideas of the epic, ideas of longer music. It relates a lot to the way you’re using space.
JK: Not that I’m comparing us to this at all, but think about, say, 1910. People didn’t hear music at the grocery store. There was no music around unless they played something at home or went to a concert hall, which is a cool space made for music. They would look for concert halls and then go hear a symphony that’s an hour and twenty minutes long. I mean, that must have been better than acid. You haven’t heard music for two years and then you get tickets to the concert. And then you go to this beautifully decorated building that’s specifically made for listening to music, and you sit there for an hour and twenty minutes. You’re probably like, “Is that it?”
BH: The definition of music has changed too. Because that was a time where people went together and they listened to people on the stage playing their instruments in real time. It was a temporal experience, fleeting, and it only happened while people were there sharing that moment.
JK: And there was no recording to be like, “Check this out!”
BH: Our plan for this recording was, we’re going to New Mexico, we’re going to record it live, and whatever happens in that moment happens. We’ll get a version that feels right. We played it live, as a trio, with our drummer friend Brett Borges. The version that’s on the record happened at about 11:30 in the morning. There were birds outside, and you can hear them. The wind blew open a door halfway through the song and that’s when I realized personally, “This is happening right now. This is a real moment that’s happening.” Part of the reason we do the Underground Parking Garage series is that every show, every song, is gonna be different each time. The songs we’re attracted to can handle those different interpretations. They’re living, breathing things, not freeze-dried.
III. ON THE EDGE OF AN UNTOUCHED PLACE
AD: Why Santa Fe? I know there’s family history, but was there something spiritual about this place? For a lot of people, Santa Fe has been a place of healing or exile.
BH: We had been there before, and we had a place that we knew we could do, but we actually went to pretty great lengths to make it happen. We basically went into debt to rent a van to bring out all our friends and equipment. It is a powerful place. In some ways, it’s on the edge of an untouched place. The sky there is amazing. And we were underneath that sky the whole time, between attempts. I always have super crazy dreams when I go Santa Fe. I don’t know if it’s the altitude or all the spiritual stuff that’s going around. My cousin went there and got sick after about a month. And she got home to L.A. and went to a witch doctor, a spiritual healer, who told her, “You have two spirits in your body. A brother and a sister. And they got in through a tattoo in your neck. And that’s why you’re feeling bad, because they’re crammed in your body.” So he did some kind of exercise and got them out and she felt a lot better. There’s a lot of history there. It’s a very strange part of the United States of America. It’s kind of a forgotten corner. It’s one of the poorest states.
AD: It’s a landscape that’s been damaged and reclaimed, a place people can still hide in. I just saw an interesting documentary about all these different people: war vets, people with psychiatric disease, people with broken marriages; they lived in this desert community outside Santa Fe. The guy who ran it went to Yale or something—he was some sort of ex-hippie, super-smart guy, who was like, “I’m done with traditional society.” I think perhaps the landscape plays a big part in that. It’s so dry, and so empty, people can get lost in it. And I was wondering if that contributed to the length of the sound and the song that you produced there.
BH: I think the biggest thing it offers is perspective. A different, wide perspective, which has to do with the size of the sky, the size of the landscape, the altitude. And there’s a reason why a lot of artists—like Georgia O’Keeffe and Cormac McCarthy—end up there. It allows you the space to think differently.
JK: The first time we went on a tour there we were in my 1992 Jeep Cherokee with no air-conditioning. We heard about this naturally wind carved sandstone amphitheater with an amazing echo. And people were like, “You’ve got to go there. That seems like it’s perfect for you guys.” So we went out there, and my car died.
BH: Right as we pulled in.
JK: So we went and we played and we checked out the amphitheater, and it was awesome, but there was always this, “How the fuck are we gonna get outta here?” So we got a tow truck, and the guy who picked us up took us to his friend’s place, and we hung out there for four hours. That was the real deal. There were wine and beer bottles and this guy working in his front yard. It was definitely a glimpse into reality there. There’s the Georgia O’Keeffe and all of that stuff, and then there’s this guy, who said he was saving up money to go bear hunting on a four-wheeler later that year. That’s what he was looking forward to.
AD: People who are reading ____________ now, would be big fans of We Are The West.
JK: I’d say Kurt Vonnegut.
BH: You think Kurt Vonnegut. They’d like us?
JK: I think so. I like Kurt Vonnegut. I just moved some bookshelves and went through all my old books. I used to be neighbors with Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis. I walked my dog past his house every day hoping to see him. I was reading a page here and there of my Vonnegut books and realizing how awesome he is.
BH: It’s only coming to my brain because I just mentioned Santa Fe, but Cormac McCarthy. But it’s a tough call.
AD: Some of his more spare stuff. Outer Dark.
JK: Some Steinbeck. Central Valley stuff.
BH: Steinbeck doesn’t get enough love these days, but he’s got a big warm place in my heart at least. Lately I’ve been reading something I don’t like but I’m finishing it anyway because it reminds me of New York. I always come back to the same book. I’ve had it by my bedside for a long time. This Italian writer, Gianni Celati. Voices from the Plains.
AD: I teach them in the Short Prose class. They’re really good. They’re all about making the epic short. We do a whole section on the hero’s journey and how you can cover a whole hero’s journey in a short prose piece. And Celati does that really well.
BH: Yeah, each one is awesome, just so simple. Right now I’m thinking of this one where this girl goes out jogging. She’s running, and she can’t find her building again because all the buildings look the same. And she gets lost. And she starts asking people directions. But she can’t remember the number—because everything is designated by numbers. And a fog descends, and then a whole crowd of people starts following her, like, “What’s your deal?” And she starts freaking out, and no one can help her. And she’s like, “I like ruuuunnninnng.”
JK: She grows a beard.
AD: Our last line of the night—right there. “She grows a beard.” Period.
Ann DeWitt’s writing has appeared in NOON, Guernica, BOMBlog, Esquire’s Napkin Fiction Project, The Believer Logger, art+culture, Everyday Genius, The Faster Times, elimae, and Dossier Magazine, amongst others, and is forthcoming in the anthology, Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. Ann holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia School of the Arts. She was a Founding Editor of Gigantic: A Magazine of Short Prose and Art in 2008. She currently teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University and in The Art and Design History and Theory department at Parsons, The New School, and is at work on her first novel. For more of her work, follow her blog at: http://talllikethreeapples.wordpress.com.