The Preservation label presents Lobelia, the debut full-length album from Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Black Eagle Child… Black Eagle Child is guise for guitarist Michael Jantz. Jantz has previously released an expansive body of work, sprawling across some of the most notable underground labels of the current day, including Stunned, Housecraft and Digitialis. His solo recordings work a realm of exploratory zones for guitar that touch on the discordant, psychedelic and pastoral, while also deploying varied percussion and field recordings for texture and rhythm. That journey continues with Lobelia, though in its expansive scope it’s played for pure songcraft and resonant beauty.
The album bristles with an underproduced energy. Despite its comparatively humble origins on a handheld recorder, the guitars and field recording leap out of the speakers – thanks in no small part to an obvious musical talent, and also the respectful mastering of Giuseppe Ielasi. There’s a discernable emotional undercurrent – the song “I Forgot” takes the often-used and now almost staple recorded sounds of an infant and places it in a different and striking context; that the song has such an impact is ample demonstration of Jantz’s ability, a unique set of hands and ears wringing a response from such a simple idea.
Also fascinating is the sound of the guitar, both familiar and peculiar . The restraint with his use of Ebow is refreshing – it glances across the speakers, breaking up the tracks whilst not overpowering the mood. The guitar melodies could have only ever been generated by another human if a bag of Leo Kottke, Kaki King and Danny Paul Grody vinyls had shattered after being dropped, and a particularly demented and obsessive owner had glued the resulting shards back together in a playable form. Able to coax multiple shimmering and chiming textures from his instrument, Jantz represents the melodic, organic and traditional side of experimental deconstructed six-string; the polar opposite end of the digital laptop manipulation of Christian Fennesz and Christopher Willits.
A singular work; defining, engaging and full of character.
Jantz graciously took some time to discuss the recording of Lobelia; the themes he documents, the methods he used to do so and the genesis of the project. Further planned releases will certainly be worth watching out for.
How was the album recorded?
Some of the album was recorded in an apartment I lived in with my family up through Spring 2010, and some of it was recorded in the house we moved into after vacating the apartment. In the apartment I would record wherever was convenient, since I didn’t have a dedicated space for playing and recording. In the house, I have the basement, which is where I currently leave my instruments and gear set up. Almost everything on the album is loosely improvised; I’ve never written anything down.
I would rehearse bits and pieces of a song on the guitar, and then simply sit down and record the song when I felt comfortable enough with the fundamental riffs, so to speak. I feel like certain parts of each song are essential, or defining, and then whatever happens aside from that was up to chance. Most of the tracks are comprised of at least two guitar tracks, and some have as many as eight. There is also a little bit of banjo, tambourine and accordion on a couple of the tracks. Percussion for two pieces was performed and recorded by Alex Gray (Dreamcolour/Deep Magic).
The field recordings were captured mostly around the apartment we were living in, which is near the Milwaukee River. There is a great series of trails and parks along the river that begin about 2 minutes walking distance from the apartment, so I would take my daughter Mary for walks and bring along my H4 and just record the entire duration of the walk. Her voice ended up in some of the recordings too, which was totally incidental at the time, but turned out to work quite nicely, I think.
Everything on the album (aside from Alex’s percussion) was recorded onto a Zoom H4. I bought the device with the intention of using it only for field recordings, but I quickly realized that it’s multi-tracking capabilities are excellent as well and I was able to set it up in the apartment very quickly, as opposed to a multi-tracker, separate pre-amps and external microphones. It really is as handy as they say!
Did you say EVERYTHING was recorded on an H4? Did you move the tracks to your computer to edit them, or was there a deliberate intent to leave them that way?
Yes, everything was recorded on the H4. This was mainly for convenience, since it’s so small and all-inclusive (mic, preamp, multi-channel capacity). I don’t really have the stamina or integrity to stick to a purist approach, so that was definitely not my thought with recording everything with a portable device. I moved everything to the laptop for mixing; I did some things with level envelopes and such that I don’t think I’d have been able to do on the H4. And I suppose mixing on a computer is still the fastest, cheapest, and easiest route for me.
Was it a long process, or was it completed quickly?
It was the longest I’ve ever worked on a single album.
Andrew at Preservation first contacted me about doing the record in Summer/Fall of 2009, and I recorded my first few tracks in Winter 2009. Then over the course of the following months, up until about August 2010, I was recording. Part of this more drawn-out process is probably due to the birth of my Mary in Summer 2009; she has rearranged my priorities, moving music down a notch. But I also feel like even if I had more time, the process would or should have taken as long as it did. Or maybe if I would have completed it faster, the record would sound much different (maybe worse?).
This is certainly the most significant (and I would say defining) work I’ve recorded to date, and I anticipated that going into it, so I was constantly sending Andrew updates on tracks and getting feedback from him. Having his help was an enormous boon; it was his idea to bring in Alex Gray’s excellent percussion on ‘Crandon’ and ‘The Quarry Slide’. And naturally he helped with sequencing and selecting Giuseppe Ielasi’s expert ears for mastering. So it was a long process, but I think it was a natural one and ultimately the album benefited from that.
How did Giuseppe Ielasi approach mastering – were there any specific approaches that you both decided on?
I think the only particular thing that we had landed on with the mastering was this idea of ‘warmth’, something I communicated to him probably before he even heard the tracks. There was very little compression done. We wanted a natural sound, and I think the album was pretty loud prior to mastering, so I suppose it was fairly straightforward. It was pretty quickly done–Andrew and I had some input after hearing a few of the mastered tracks, and after that Giuseppe was able to do the whole thing in a few days and we were all pleased with how it sounded. What I like most about the mastering is its subtlety. While I’m very fond of Giuseppe’s music and several other albums he’s mastered, I feel like he has a very pleasant, nearly transparent presence on Lobelia, though that presence was necessary, nonetheless.
Was there a specific point you wanted to express with keeping the recording warm and natural? Is there a theme you were trying to impart on the record as a whole?
Ah yes. The descriptive imagery I use in titling the album and its songs is very personal to me and my family, mostly to do with my childhood. I feel like I owe credit to my family for having such an enormous impact on who I am now. So this idea of the family is the single over-arching theme on the album. When it comes to mastering and the overall sound of the album, I am probably more inclined toward a natural and airy sound because it feels more personal and human. Of course, I enjoy many records that come across as cold and impersonal, but for my own music and especially because it’s all reflective of my family, I try to keep things warm and personal. I think the sound and feel of the album should express this warmth, and if it doesn’t, maybe I’ve failed. I think also that the titles can convey a similar feeling. Even though they’re from my own life, many can be easily recognizable as landmarks or rites of passage in the life of a child.
Is this expressed in the album artwork?
Definitely. Andrew selected the photo and showed it to me very early on after I’d expressed my ideas and intended direction for the album, and at that time he said something like (very loose paraphrasing here), “I like this one, but we’ll have plenty of time to select something…we’ll see what else comes up.” And in the end we went with that photo. I’m not sure it’s necessarily reflective of my own family, especially not on the most superficial levels. But I like it especially because it appears to be taken at a time during which family was more dependent on and reflective of each other. The image is very romantic–a sparkling family together in an equally perfect woods. It is superficial (as is the principle behind portraiture), but I like it nonetheless.
Family does seem to be a dominant theme – I understand that a member of your immediate family makes an appearance on the record, specifically on “I Forgot”?
That’s right. My daughter Mary, who at the time was much younger than she is right now as I write this–well, relatively speaking. I didn’t really plan on using her voice on the album, but after I listened to the recording of her and it really touched me, I decided to try putting into one of the tracks. It sort of sits in this spot in that song where all of the guitar tracks line up perfectly (the only point in the entire 8-minute track). This was incidental at first, but then I kind of thought it was interesting how it could be thought of as symbolic.
Listening to her voice in conjunction with the music, which is a bit weepy by nature, sort of makes me overwhelmed with emotion. She’s been such a wonderful addition to the lives of my wife Celeste and I, and I already feel deeply nostalgic for things that happened only months ago, so I think it’s really important to have ways to earmark certain fond memories in our lives together. She’s a natural addition to both my domestic life and my creative life.
When you say it’s reflective of your family, in what way is this so? Did any events or people in particular inspire the material?
Well, every track on the album is named for something in my childhood or current life. My mom administered (among dozens of other homeopathic substances) Lobelia extract to my brother and sister and I like it was aspirin to an adult. We hated it at the time, but it’s the kind of thing that is not easily forgotten. As a teenager, I worked in a concessions booth at a local quarry that had been filled with water…a swimming hole. They built a slide there and I spent a lot of time there over the course of a few years.
Crandon is the name of a mining town in Wisconsin. My family took many trips there and I still go periodically to fish and sort of vacation with my dad and brother, though lately the lake levels have been low and I’ve not had a lot of time, due to my new fatherly role. And this actually brings to fore the sort of duality of identity that I feel comes with starting one’s own family. I have this previous identity that is defined by my parents and siblings, but I also have a newer identity that I’ve created with the help of my wife and daughter. So even though most of the imagery refers to my childhood, some of it also has to do with my more recently created identity. The album is a reflection of the reconciliation of my two selves, both of whom are ‘family’ men (or boys?).
Was it, or is it, a musical family? Is that where the creative life started?
I don’t think I come from a musical family, or at least not in the sense that a lot of people seem to use the term. I mean, all of the kids took piano lessons–some longer than others. My dad played piano as well, though he doesn’t really any more. He also played the accordion as a child, and the accordion I used on Lobelia is his. I think I’ve more or less inherited it, but I’m not entirely sure yet–he might want it back at some point. I took piano lessons from age six to twelve and then maybe five years of guitar lessons. Somewhere in there I also bought a drum set. For a while in my mid-teens I was also really into electric bass. As of right now I am the only person in my family who really plays music frequently and for an audience.
What other musical influences did you bring out of that period?
It’s kind of weird to think about how little I really knew about music as a kid. I listened to mostly rock and roll throughout my childhood–stuff like Nirvana, Pink Floyd, and then also a lot of punk and metal stuff. I didn’t start listening to electronic music until I was eighteen and really didn’t like classical or its derivatives until my early twenties.
So I suppose that what I’ve brought out of my childhood and directly into Lobelia is the enjoyment that comes from playing a few chords and kind of emotively noodling along to those simple progressions. It’s a very basic exercise and I do a lot of it on the album. I guess I learned how to ‘solo’ from playing Pink Floyd songs and I learned how to keep a song’s foundation simple by listening to a lot of punk and more basic rock bands. Things like field recordings and the heavier, more obvious repetition of riffs wasn’t something I’d really considered doing until maybe my mid-twenties.
Are there any recent influences that impacted on the album?
I don’t know if I can very easily identify my recent influences. The last few years have been a deep immersion into more experimental and non-traditional music for me, so I’m sure that other musicians putting stuff out through similar channels to some of my own previous work have had an effect on me. Consciously I can credit Jeff Astin (aka Xiphiidae) with making me want to do stuff like what’s on “I Forgot”. That track was recorded with a pretty specific goal in terms of ‘sound’ or mood. I don’t think I achieved it by any means, but I am often trying to ‘capture’ his sound when I play more nebulous pieces. It’s impossible, I think.
One of the tracks was cued by a Yo La Tengo song; I won’t say which of mine and which of theirs. Come to think of it, Yo La Tengo has had a huge influence in my playing over the last few years. Especially their more mellowed-out and meandering stuff, like the recordings for “The Sounds of Science”. Other than that, I’m not sure I really ever consciously determined to try mimicking another artist’s style or sound. I’m certain that I’m impacted by the music I listen to daily, but I’ve probably just stolen other artists’ ideas without even realizing it! Wish I could identify them now, so I could give them some credit.
What plans now? Are you recording again?
I am kind of always recording. That’s the beauty of ‘home recording’, I think. I’m working on a few odds and ends and also something a bit more ‘focused’ that is centered around a piece I recorded last year but have been holding on to–a longer sampled and sequenced piece that I’m now recording some corresponding pieces for. But I’m not sure what will come of any of the works in progress yet, so I can’t really say anything specific about their futures.
I certainly want to continue to extend the style of play that I used in Lobelia for some future works–shorter, more concise songs. Not sure if anything else will be out in 2011.
The album is available now from Stashed Goods, packaged in one of the label’s characteristically crisp designs and is well worthy of any attention able to be given to it.