Of at least equal importance with his entertainer's cap was the jester's function as adviser and critic. This is what distinguishes him from a pure entertainer who would juggle batons, swallow swords, or strum on a lute or a clown who would play the fool simply to amuse people. The jester everywhere employed the same techniques to carry out this delicate role, and it would take an obtuse king or emperor not to realize what he was driving at, since other court functionaries cooked up the king's facts for him before delivery; the jester delivered them raw.
Kyle Bobby Dunn’s forthcoming album “Ways Of Meaning”, to be released by Desire Path on vinyl in May, is a glacial six-song opus; a sweeping and moving meditation on distant memory, delivered lyrically with articulate guitar and organ arrangements.
It is also, when listened to with a certain set of ears, profoundly melancholic. This forlorn element may give some the impression of a deeply morose artist plotting a dramatic and serious course through minimalist 21st century drone.
This landscape is unfortunately by nature vastly overpopulated. In many cases, by verbose dilettante hipsters spitting out 28-minute slowed down recordings of children’s toys, demanding them to be regarded as valid artistic expression; spoilt white kids playing with expensive music software on top of the line Macs bought by rich parents.
Dunn is not one of those dilettantes.
In person he is at odds with this stereotype, and will take every opportunity to dispel it – quick to puncture any bubble in a line of thought that might end in an assumption of pretension, even if the line is not headed in that direction. He acts as the witty and acerbic jester to the potentially pompous second life he seems to feel his music may have in the eyes of others, even if that is not the case. In the same way an astute jester might be able to change the atmosphere of a palace in mourning, when questioned on the elements that make up his music he continually deflects overt comparisons between his many listed classical influences, instead likening his work in part to pop music or formative cinematic influences like the 80’s film The Hitcher.
Likening Dunn to the cliché of a comic courtier might seem totally inappropriate, but the image that I’m trying to convey here is not disrespectful. Far from mockery, it strikes me more than once in talking to him that a number of modern institutions could benefit from having a similar accompanying commentary, deflating the grandiose oxygen from their press.
It also distinguishes him as an essentially humble and rational human being, not given to hyperbole. Someone releasing deeply moving material close to them, dredging pivotal personal recollections from the looking glass of memory and laying them out flat like book-pressed flowers, behavior fundamentally conflicting with a self deprecatory, modest and unassuming nature.
Writ large, the core role of the jester was to contextualize the things brought before the king with satire and mockery. This is what Dunn does when discussing his music, although perhaps more with humility than anything else, the jester delivering the facts raw.
It is in the nature of jesters to speak their minds when the mood takes them, regardless of the consequences. They have little to gain by caution and little to lose by candor—apart from liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life, which hardly seems to have been a deterrent. They are peripheral to the game of politics, and this can reassure a king that their words are unlikely to be geared to their own advancement.
Over the course of a conversation, Dunn gives the impression of a journeyman, a Brooklyn-based Canadian expatriate, born in Ontario, who works a number of jobs as a freelancer whilst simultaneously pursuing his musical career. The topic of the grind of living in the New York is raised; a half-formed desire to return the more scenic surrounds of a natural environment is mentioned in return. A previous white-collar job involving numbers is briefly discussed, as well as a desire to not return to that type of career. An early and ongoing interest in film pursued in earnest as a youth is mentioned as an accompanying interest, even a catalyst for his musical development, as is the ongoing love of soundtracks as mentioned on his Wikipedia page.
An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a wide range of backgrounds: an erudite but nonconformist university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman.
Kyle was kind enough to allow some time for Fluid to converse with him over email and Skype, and a portion of the sprawling dialogue that occurred over a fortnight is reproduced here.
How long did the album take to record?
KBD: I’d been conjuring some of its themes since 1999 – believe it or not – but the entire recording process only took about 6 months. All was recorded at this place Bunce Cake in downtown Brooklyn.
Is Bunce Cake a studio, or a performance space?
KBD: Studio equipped with a bedroom, fridge, food and stench.
It’s basically a desk and computer, viewing and listening space, bed, coffee machine and kitchen with a separate room containing a toilet and shower. It’s been close to me for some time.
What was your process in deconstructing the sounds on the record?
KBD: Deconstructing? Does it really sound that way?
I mainly tried to structure the songs without added layers or overdubs – using guitar. There is one more quiet organ suite. I am trying more to build on this record then simply lay flat out, like on older things.
To be honest with you, I’m not sure how to describe it. I understand they’re guitar and organ but I’m not able as a layman to identify sound. I’m curious how that sound is achieved?
KBD: It’s just a nice tone or sound that starts with me sitting down at the guitar or organ and playing it through some processors and things. These are songs as much as people would probably argue they aren’t. To me they are and follow a sort of general song formula if that makes sense.
The idea of a song formula makes sense. Are you mindful of song structure in general?
KBD: A little bit. I admit I have a strange composing technique, but with many of these recordings it became very simple and more like a song, yes. Since I was too young I’ve been listening to church, choral, classical and early music composers and records – but also had a heart for pop musics and been recording things in more of a pop structure on the side for years. So maybe there is a bit of both in the songs on “Ways of Meaning”.
What pop music do you think has had the most influence over you? And are there any composers that had a direct influence over this record in particular?
KBD: Certain pop music and its ‘influence’ has come sort of unconsciously over the years. My parents both listened to country pop music – as much as I hated it, I have to say it lent itself into my sounds over the years in some haunting way.
My mother used to play it quite loudly sometimes when I lived in a bungalow in Alberta – the way it seeped through the floors was always bassy and its melodies and verses sounded better in its muddied almost watery kind of way. I like structures and concepts of pop music often more than the music itself, so that may be in the sounds of this…
I was listening to a lot of Desprez, Léonin, and sacred chant music whilst writing some of the music on the album. But all kinds of things really. I’ve never been directly influenced by an artist or particular style – and as far as I know I don’t compose or create in the same way any of my favorite composers have, I probably never will.
What is it about the structures and concepts of pop music that appeal to you?
KBD: I suppose the sort of simplicity and personal aspects that most pop songs inhabit or try to. There’s often an essential emphasis on melody and accessibility in pop music that I tried to tap into in my own way. There’s also the inspiration that comes from a general hatred of pop music in many of these songs…
Aside from the obvious, what specifically is it about pop music that you dislike?
KBD: Aside from the obvious things in pop (its direct appeal, usually instant catch and contrived nature) I hate the culture and symbolism often involved. The loudness and product pushing sensibilities, the predictability and rush of the mainstream world and notions of recording and touring.
I’ve struggled with it and even come to love certain pop music out of disgust. But, I could easily say the struggle and even hatred exists in my own music and that’s a hard truth, but if I sort of hate today’s music world I better be ready to hate my own.
That’s another thing I was dealing with while writing and reworking some old themes on this beast – especially on ‘Movement for the Completely Fucked…’ I have a love/hate relationship in sound processing and making music in general.
Why is it love/hate? What is it about doing it that frustrates you?
KBD: It’s half impulsive and half a desire to dwell and conjure up old feelings or memories, almost. The most frustrating element is the live thing for my music and some of the pressure. Even this interview is frustrating because I feel I am trying to give some insight or reverence and just failing every step of the way.
There have been moments in my compositions I feel right and maybe only I feel right about and then moments that feel a bit forced or exist as uncertainties – that are really no different from my own confusion in reality and time. I guess it doesn’t matter if I continue making music or not. Nobody would care either way.
I’m interested in your mention of uncertainties – you mention them in relation to your music; do you mean an uncertainty in how your music will develop, or how it has developed in specific places?
KBD: It’s really the uncertainties that might make it possible to keep working or contextualizing in music. It’s like life situations in the way that they may be good or bad things – and they develop just like a person develops. Maybe I am an unfortunate case, as I am not sure I have really developed too much since I began composing and recording.
What pieces are you most happy with, in that context?
KBD: Ones that stand out are usually available on releases. I still feel ‘Young Person’s Guide’ is a good introduction or essential into my work. I may feel the closest to those pieces as I spent so much time with them… I think I was most satisfied and moved with the results I achieved minimally on ‘The Nightjar’ from that album. I am pretty happy with how some of the waves and emotions of existential bliss might have come through on ‘Movement for the Completely Fucked’ and ‘Tuohy’s Theme.’
What would you say is your primary motivation for making music? What motivates you to keep at it, given your antagonistic relationship to the process?
KBD: I don’t really have a motivation. In fact some of the music probably most definitely crawls from a lack of motivation in many things in my life, music aside. Certainly the prospect of having my music released as products on labels has stirred my mind about getting out and playing live and even touring (which I haven’t really extensively tried yet), but a motivation to continue my recordings as Kyle Bobby Dunn? – I have no idea.
There’s certainly no financial gain or even pressure to record an album and I’m not after anything in particular. It simply reassures some personal and creative notions and is also a strange way of expressing ideas and communicating them the best I can with the limited things I can do musically. I keep at it because it’s what I’ve done for years and just makes sense.
I like who I get to work with at times and sometimes the feelings I get are those I’ve felt in the past – and that’s really when I feel I’ve done my job – if I can conjure up that old emotion or feel in the sound… But my mind on music and my relationship to it has gone through so many different incantations over the years… I can’t tell if it’s had a positive or negative effect on me, or anyone. I know that I quite possibly hate more music and what it stands for and how it works than I like any of it.
Do you feel that uncertainty you mention reflected in modern life across the board? I’ve spoken to a more than a few artists who feel that reflecting that uncertainty back in their music is beneficial to them. Do you feel this is what you’re doing, or is it a more personal thing?
KBD: It is something reflected on this recording, for sure. In context with my personal suppression from society and overall alienated mood from music and people – I don’t know that amplifying it and analyzing it in sound is beneficial or even very healthy. I think I’ve actually developed health problems from being someone who makes music. Both mentally and physically. Nor is it easy to share with anyone else.
Are there particular memories that shape this record?
KBD: Yes of course. Some of the titling of its songs should help with that from my side. Some of it is deeply rooted in my early adolescent and childhood years. Some is just a general present reflection on myself, and the world in which we live. I definitely find, in listening back to my work, it’s easier to reflect on certain resonances of my memory and, even if it sounds quite silly, feel things a bit more.
You mention recalling or digging up events in memory as starting points for material – do you see the process as cathartic?
KBD: Not so much. Sometimes I wish it were because I’m not getting a release per se from my music. It’s a lot more like a dwelling in time, for me. When something comes back in time to me, it often is this kind of starting point for the composition – and I spend a lot of time reflecting the sounds off the memory or vice versa. I try and resurrect the demons in a way, but that means going in and trying to find all the intricacies and things connected with the memory of someone or some place in time. Some songs on the “Ways of Meaning” record are more like flirtations and just immediate feelings rather than dwellings. ‘Statuit’ and ‘Movement for the Completely Fucked’ really represent large chunks of time and feelings but not one exact thing, like ‘Tuohy’s Theme’ or older recordings like ‘Butel’ and ‘The Tributary.’
How did the record come to its home at Desire Path?
KBD: Michael Vitrano expressed an interest in working together and suggested that the music should arrive as a vinyl release, which I very much saw for this.
If you could give the listener guidance for how to approach your music, for example, explain how a piece has developed, formed, and the context it was meant to be listened to in, would you want to? Or would you prefer it to stand on its own with no explanation?
KBD: Well I have had to explain too much about myself and music recently – but unless someone asks me to explain a certain song and its title, I’d rather not try and douse someone in my past and weird context attached with everything. If someone feels it – they feel it, and that’s fine.
I don’t feel a lot of music so I could certainly understand why nobody gets mine. For me, I know what’s there and it either brings a layer of sadness or warmth to me. Sometimes both.
How do you feel your sound has developed since your last, “A Young Person’s Guide…”?
KBD: Well on this recording, there is a lot taken out and a focus on more simplicity. Stripping out some unnecessary voices and elements. I think it all comes from a similar place and process methodology but its more direct and there’s been less time overanalyzing and mulling things around in my mind. The blunt of “Young Person’s Guide” was written between 2004-2006, so quite some time has passed and maybe allowed me to reconsider things.
When you talk about stripping out unnecessary voices and elements, what are you referring to?
KBD: Some of the effects and washes that appear in past material are gone. I tried to refine the fuzz and grain a bit to compliment the sounds more, maybe.
I’ve had too much stuff come out in odd formats since 2006 or so. I started a CDr thing back then to put out some half baked guitar mutations for some reason, and then immediately following that crap was this Kning Disk release (some Swedish label) that featured more harsher days, hectic winter songs, compositions for humming rooms and that sort of guitar configuration process I was working on in between writing music for strings and piano based music. It’s funny how many things I seem to be working on and how it’s all pretty estranged in a way.
I even told myself after “Young Person’s Guide” came out last year that it was time to put things away and rest for some time… that hasn’t been the case. I’m drawn to the frustrations of my work more than ever and that’s hard cause I don’t know where I’ll wind up.
You mention spending a lot of time with the tracks from “Young Person’s Guide”, and you also mention that some of the material from “Ways Of Meaning” had it’s genesis from over a decade ago. It sounds like there’s a fairly protracted process with working up the material?
KBD: Yeah it’s kind of been a modus operandi in the amorphous world of Kyle Bobby Dunn over the last several years. A lot of what I work on relies on time and memory. It seems as I age I recall or dig up past events and things that stick out in my mind become almost like a starting point in the creating and composing process.
“A Young Person’s Guide” began on guitar one frozen morning in North Carolina in about 2004 and dealt with a desire for a warm wooded area or expanse of land and trees – something that had been reoccurring in my dreams for a long time. The album finished in 2009 upon recording ‘Bonaventure’s Finest Hour’ at Bunce Cake studios in Brooklyn. Its themes deal heavily with moments taken from 1998 onwards at the St. Bonaventure Catholic school in Alberta.
It’s almost like the further back I can recall or remember, the more sensible it seems to begin recording and processing. Point being, “Ways of Meaning” was nice to just let go of some methods – still thinking about times and places from long ago – but in a more concise, possibly more listenable form musically.
You mentioned letting go of methods in the recording of “Ways Of Meaning”, and I was curious what those methods were.
KBD: I guess just certain arrangements and obvious instrumentation has been dropped. I also didn’t spend as much time on the songs as I did on “Young Person’s” … mainly because of the effect I was hoping to achieve with the simplicity of the guitar tones and organ.
Someone might argue that these are lacking definition because of the short amount of time spent on some of it. I like to think it reveals a new quality with a different but just as meaningful depth. I just didn’t dwell as much on the songs as I have in the past.
Jesters are not noted for flattery or fawning. The ruler can be isolated from his courtiers and ministers, who might conspire against him. The jester too can be an isolated and peripheral figure somehow detached from the intrigues of the court, and this enables him to act as a kind of confidant.
In addition to the regular vinyl release on 23rd of May, there is also a strictly limited “Ways of Meaning” Art Edition including, in addition to the 12″LP, a companion set of sixteen (16) 5×5″ photographic prints created by Christopher Koelle in collaboration with Kyle Bobby Dunn, inspired by and infused with his photography, music and memories; hand-numbered in an edition of 30 and a link to download the album is provided upon purchase.
Those who preorder the regular LP version of “Ways of Meaning” will also get a free, high-quality mp3 download of the album, with the link provided upon purchase.