In late March of 2020, after a few weeks of mostly staying at home, I began to realize that a lot of my usual ways of thinking about things had changed. Thinking about performing and recording, and even simply practicing, felt disrupted at best. Traveling, booking studio time, or playing with other people seemed less of a possibility each day. As uncertainty turned to unlikeliness, I, like many others, started to look back on better times.
I had a closet full of various boxes and bins of things from the past that needed sorting. Printed matter and recordings from the record label I used to have, old band posters and records, as well as many personal documents (unmarked CD-Rs, old fliers, photos, etc.) all needed organizing, and this seemed like the perfect time to take it on. Not only was there more time at home to spend on it, but the thought of revisiting good memories from the past seemed a welcome escape from the paused and increasingly bleak reality before us.
I definitely got a lot of organizing of this material done, but the unmarked CD-Rs created a slight distraction by opening up a whole new world of mystery. These contained recordings of things barely recognizable in terms of context. Were they practice sessions from 15 years ago or leftovers from more recent recording sessions? Had some of it been used on an old release or compilation and I just don’t remember it? Inserting each disc into the player was like stepping into a dream. Each disc proved I had been somewhere and done something once, but now it was completely unknown and unfamiliar. A strange experience!
A few of these discs contained material that I thought could be used for something now, and so I began making collages with them. Listening and editing this old material to create new material felt much more exciting than working on a new record that wouldn’t be able to be performed for quite some time, if a reasonable time period existed at all.
Though I had no intention of performing any of this work, I was invited by ESS to play as part of their online Quarantine Concert Series and thought that I could possibly make it work. Instead of worrying too much about the limitations of the audio and visual components of an online performance, I saw it as an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before, while still creating a sonic and visual experience.
From there, having used up all of the quality material from the old CD-Rs, I started making new recordings in a similar vein, and worked on editing them together in a similar style. I became totally focused on the sound alone, without considering any ideas about performance or recreating the material in any way. Grateful to have stumbled into this new perspective, I thought, “how did this happen? I was just cleaning my closet!”SIGE Records approached me about contributing a recording for a fundraising effort they had started, to which I offered an EP worth of material. Titled MONOS, it represents the value that isolation can bring even though things might not seem positive on the surface.
The work continued simply because it was enjoyable. With all touring, festival and other concerts cancelled for the year, if not longer, it was an ideal approach for me to have stumbled upon: Recording for the sake of making an interesting record and nothing else.
Another EP followed on Grisaille Records, this time consisting only of collages of new recordings. Released as a cassette and digitally, this record reflects my previous work of long-form pieces of dense frequencies and overtones from various percussion instruments. Titled, A Presence Held, it offered a sonic escape from the world around me – an auditory place to sit within.
By then, months had passed since March, and the prospect of things going back to “normal” seemed pointless to dwell on. So, I continued with the path I was on. Serendipitously, I was contacted by American Dreams Records in Chicago to work on a full length record. Being confident enough in this new approach after working on the EPs, I was excited about creating a full-length to share with others. As I continued with my recording experiments, I added another layer to the process: light, which involved another memory from the past.
In 1990, I had moved to Chicago for school. Initially, I didn’t have any close friends there and it was my first time living away from my parents. I had a small studio apartment that was one room with an adjoining bathroom. Outside of school and a part-time job, I was in this room, either studying or listening to music and reading. Because it was so small, it got dull quickly. I’d come home and turn on the light switch by the door, which turned on the main overhead lights in the room, effectively lighting the entire space with bright white light. This functionality became part the dullness and so I began trying different light sources for the entire space. Some days, I would turn only the bathroom light on, which left the rest of the space in a dark gray glow. Other days, I’d use only the closet light and one small lamp in a corner, creating a soft and pleasant mood throughout the room. I removed some bulbs from the main overhead lights, so that when they were turned on, the space would look and feel different, instead of the usual functional, yet typical, glare. These alternate configurations improved my mood and perception, while seeming to change the space. Each night was like coming home to a new place, and ultimately, I felt renewed by it as well. Changing the light source and placement became a symbol of what could be.
Now, many years later, I was in a similar situation. As good as home is, there’s something about being in a single place for so long that it starts to affect you. Remembering my experience of the past, I knew light could bring a different perspective. I began implementing these kinds of light alternatives in the rooms where I recorded and mixed. A new house within a house started to emerge, inspiring thoughts about secret rooms, dreams and memories – each involving mental pictures that would shift based on my perception and mood. As I worked on the music, the light and sound created a meditative zone to contemplate particular mysteries and experiences that have occurred in my life. While some of these memories are unpleasant, there’s a thread of optimism and perseverance that have helped me navigate them. However, many questions remain that will never be answered.
For years, I’ve admired Niki Feijen’s photographs of abandoned places. They also hold many questions about the people who inhabited them. What events shaped their actions? What caused them to abandoned their homes? Do their disappearances represent escapes, tragedies, or something simpler? His photographs hold evidence and stories we’ll never know, but can ponder and imagine as we look at its wondrous imagery. His work is the perfect accompaniment to this record.
Family Secret is released on LP/CD/Digital by American Dreams Records on January 22, 2021. It involves the entirety of what I’ve described above, and more. It’s the past, the present, and the will to find your way, no matter the situation.