Every summer, traveling through the mountains photographing, I am somehow able to renew and relive my childhood. I regain my southern, mountain accent and approach my people with openness, fascination, and respect; and they treat me with respect. My psychic antennae become sharpened and acute. I love these people, perhaps that is it, plain and simple. I respond to the sensual beauty of a hardened face with many scars, the deeply etched lines and flickers of sweat containing bright spots of sunlight. The eyes of my subjects reveal a kindness and curiosity, and their acceptance of me is gratifying. For me, this is rejuvenation of the spirit of time past, and I am better for the experience each time it happens. These portraits are, in a way, self-portraits that represent a long autobiographical exploration of creativity, imagination, vision, repulsion and salvation. My greatest fear as a photographer is to look into the eyes of my subject and not see my own reflection. My work has been an artist's search for a deeper understanding of my heritage and myself, using photography as a medium and the Appalachian people as collaborators with their own desires to communicate. I hope, too, that viewers, will see in these photographs something of the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people. - Shelby Lee Adams
Originally from Kentucky, Offthesky is Jason Corder who currently resides in Denver, Colorado in the United States. From an early age, Jason experimented with simple piano melody patterns, tape deck recording, tracker software and 8bit explorations. He went on to teach himself guitar, learning more advanced music production software and eventually began to translate these ideas into his own tracks. These regularly shifting learning patterns started at the tender age of five, perhaps born out of an early Attention Deficiency Disorder diagnosis. This restlessness is something that Jason is comfortable with in music and embracing it has led to a gradual honing of craft over a lifetime of sound experiments. The more strings that he adds to his bow, the more curious he seems to get; and with each release, he likes to carefully explore his latest ideas and techniques. So for those of you with a few Offthesky records in your collection, you’ll notice a different shift and evolution explored within each. In 2006, Jason even decided to change the then Off The Sky moniker to the unique one-word morpheme ‘Offthesky’. If nothing else, this expresses his desire to hold evolution as a major facet of his artistic process.
Magnetically drawn to melody and texture, Jason’s sound typically comprises of a deep and quirky aesthetic that draws in on all his influences. Musically, he cites an early interest in jazz and orchestral music as the foundation to the odd way in which he likes to think about music. Elsewhere, he concedes that he has learnt more about music through film, painting and his own sound experiments along the way.
For his latest record ‘The Beautiful Nowhere’, Jason had initially set himself a loose rule to use as many acoustic instruments as possible, whilst limiting the use of heavy electronic processing techniques. Instruments including guitar, harmonium, cello, toy piano, violin, kalimba, vibraphone and voice were recorded in a cabin near Carter Lake, Colorado in the peace of a beautiful, yet remote space. It was this secluded environment that encouraged and an existential state of mind and the resulting material gleaned of ideas relating to isolation and the surrounding rural landscape. Around the time of recording, Jason also watched a documentary called ‘The True Meaning Of Pictures’, about photographer Shelby Lee Adams. His subjects lie in deep Appalachia; an incredible culture caught on film that has haunted Jason ever since.
This work is a study to be felt. It does speak to you, if not directly, indirectly, more intuitively than in a conscious sense. This is a feeling culture: its people live with memory and spirits of times past. Having the freedom to feel leads to fearless honesty: expressing emotions directly, where others do not, creating volatility and changes at times yet, leading to staying power, never leaving one's family or place. Faith is important. Jesus says: Behold, I stay with you always. Some live with hurt and retribution. They think of the future with uncertainty. Analytic dialogue and planning are not the norm here. This is difficult for some to understand. My work explores both internal and external representation, with more emphasis on the inner processes. - Shelby Lee Adams
Fluid was lucky enough to get some time with Jason recently, and he was able to fill us in on ‘The Beautiful Nowhere’, iPads and Shelby Lee Adams…
How long did the album take to complete?
JC: A little over a year – though some of the pieces were started a few years ago, left in the dust, revived and finished. The longest I’ve let a song sit before finishing it is about 7-8 years, I think. Just like a good drink, some things perfect with age…
Is that the way you usually work, starting multiple projects and songs and working at them over time?
JC: Not until the last few years really. I think it makes more sense to work on a group of songs then set them down for many months, allowing time to blur my perspective of them a bit. Going back to them after becoming completely unfamiliar with them helps give me to determine new directions to take with them. Also learning how to use the delete button in that process has really helped!
How did the record come to its home at Hibernate?
JC: Well, Jonathan and I were in some talks about me putting a record out with Hibernate. I actually sent him a whole different album to begin with and he responded with “I’d love to put this out on vinyl, would you mind adjusting it to fit on a record?”.
The funny thing was, I had already finished a whole other record and had made it especially for vinyl to begin with. I kind of did that just to go through the process of creating a work for that medium (and with a little faith that somebody would want to release it on vinyl). So anyway, at that point I wrote Jonathan back and said ‘Hey, I’ve actually got this other record (The Beautiful Nowhere) that was made just for a 45 format’. I’m really happy he loved it instead. The original record I sent him – Endless Yonder – will be out soon via Alex Navarro’s SEM label. I’m very excited for that release as well!
Were you listening to any material during this period that you felt had an influence on the two albums?
JC: Absolutely! I’m always trying to soak in some kind of music… actually I got back into classical music a little bit; returning to my childhood years when that was all I was allowed to listen to. Debussy is one name in particular whose melodies I adore. But I also really got into Iron And Wine, as well as Morgan Packard’s latest Anticipate release – some excellent and inspiring music all around!
How would you describe your approach to guitar?
JC: Loose and loopy… pretty, melodic and rhythmic too. I guess I’m kind of an existentialist when it comes to playing instruments. I typically like to only do like 3-4 takes, and I love it when notes don’t completely hit on the beat or when mistakes just pop up and turn into really golden moments in the song. This always feels better in the end than the songs I’ve created where every note had to be ironed, cut, and edited.
During the creation of these records, I also created a live loop system using Max for Live, a broken trigger finger, and Ableton’s Looper effect. I control the trigger finger with my toes (now dubbed it ‘trigger toe’) to start and stop loop. The ‘trigger toe’ has a nice feature of allowing the pressure from each drum pad to transmit a cc – so the harder my toe pushes down on a pad, the more reverb I get on the guitar. But I used this setup on just about every song on these records…
At what point did you come to appreciate that spontaneity in your music? Was there a project or song that triggered it?
JC: It’s hard to say. I think working and playing with allot of different musicians has really helped me become addicted to embracing the loveliness of spontaneous sonic happening. But I think with my earlier records I ended up, sadly, ironing or editing out too many of the beautiful spontaneous moments because either a label expected me to do something very refined or “professional” or whatever. And I was probably a bit immature and self conscious; feeling I had to make something “perfect” therefore “acceptable” – which is a necessary but difficult part becoming a strong musician.
That’s all not to say that putting allot of effort into perfecting a mix or arrangement is a bad thing – it’s not. But an artist should allow for some freedom in their process and just feel okay with leaving in a few screw-ups. Some artists who have inspired me to go this route along the way are Phoenicia (their Brown Out record in particular), John Coltrane, Ricardo Villalobos, and of course Animal Collective.
I’m also taken with the idea of Coltrane as an influence – jazz is a pretty experimental field, and it seems to sit with your style of unconventional musicianship well. Are there any elements that you take from jazz directly?
JC: Well, I’ve certainly worked in my fair share of samples taken from old jazz records. I guess you don’t get more direct than that! But anymore I just try and take ideas from the spirit of that kind of music. Like the loose knit performance mentality that permeates jazz.
Did working on these two albums give you a direction for your next?
JC: Yes, of course! Lately I’ve been making guitar loops with the iPad using my Behringer FCB1010 floor stomp box and an awesome app called the ‘Every Day Looper’. I guess I want to be like all those weird bands out there who are now trying to make a record using just the iPad. It’s probably worth trying out just to get away from the usual tools and tricks and there are some amazing music creation apps for the iPad now…
I’m really interested in you using the iPad for music. Could you make a whole record that way?
JC: Well after a couple months of researching various apps and how they are able to interact with each other, I really think it’s 100% possible now – certainly not as easy as just using Logic or Ableton on a higher powered computer but with patience, it’s doable. So through the research, I’ve become obsessed with actually attempting to create a record that uses nothing but the iPad, acoustic instruments and a contact mic – mostly to satisfy my weird internal sense of self competition and to hopefully gain some patience through the process.
But there’s a slew of great apps out there that really make it super fun to jam out and make sounds on the iPad (or iPhone). Iasuto is one, similar to Reaktor in the sense that you place modules and wire them up. But there’s the added aspect of each module’s distance from each other effecting various parameters – such as volume levels, pitch, etc. And you can animate the movement of the modules, which makes for some seriously cool dynamic weirdness. Also “Sunvox” is a great “tracker” style app that lets you wire up synths through various effects. So if you can get past the “tracker” style learning curve you can do some wicked sequencing. And then there’s multitrack DAW – a great DAW style app that lets you have up to 24 tracks and a timeline based audio arranger. And you can take recorded sounds created in the other mentioned apps and move them into multitrack DAW for editing/arranging. All without a laptop or internet connection.
I could go on and on about all this nerdiness – but once I’ve finished the record I’m going to try and blog about the whole experience. Hopefully that will inspire others of the possibilities of using mobile devices to make music. I know it’s a totally trendy thing to try and do nowadays but the bottom line is it’s a lot of fun. And I’m just happy to be able to arrange music in some really odd, remote places…
How have you made records in the past, have you always done it yourself?
JC: I guess on a majority of my release I’ve done most of the work. There’s a few where it was 50/50 effort (Suspended, Flyover Sound, Further To Find Closer) – and usually I’ll do the final polishing master pass if possible. I’ve been working with pillow garden lately (Sarah Chung) as she has some nice organic ideas and a voice that really works with my music. I’d like to use less of my voice and more of the female voice as it typically contains textural qualities that just seem to fit with what I do on the guitar. She and I just put out a free release via Audio Gourmet called ‘A Dream In A Dream’ – very pretty sleepy washy stuff.
But all in all I really love working with different musicians as much as possible. New minds add new ideas and angles that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with on my own. It makes for a more dynamic record in the end too. Plus I’m a sampling junky so I love recording musicians who are willing to just play along to my music, impromptu-style. I’ve tried working with classically trained musicians but getting past the dogma of sheet music and old-school academic thinking usually would get in the way. And of course working in the field recording plants, trees and clouds is always super fun – typically natural things are some of the best performers (and you don’t have to even bug them to play for you!)
How did you become interested in the works of Shelby Lee Adams?
JC: Having spent a lot of time immersed in Appalachian culture during my life, I was immediately drawn to his movie and work. He takes incredibly haunting photographs, that some have deemed controversial because they appear to take advantage of the subject matter. But the film about his life and the issues surrounding his photographs, “The True Meaning Of Pictures”, nudged me into deeper research about the musical history of that culture.
How did this influence work its way into the album?
JC: Some time after watching the film, I ended up driving around to a slew of antique stores in small run-down towns in Kentucky looking for old instruments, records and trinkets that I could feed off of and soak into the music somehow. Some of the old vinyl featuring gospel hymns and porch side folk tunes are what helped me to come up with some of the song titles, melodies and feelings that went into “The Beautiful Nowhere”. That title itself kind of takes from the idea of rustic beauty that those tiny towns entail.
What was it in particular about Adam’s work that struck the chord?
JC: Aside from the beauty of his photos, I found the persistent nature of his approach fascinating – he would spend years and years photographing an entire generation of one family. I’m inspired by artists who really embrace their work and who really stick with it, regardless of the critics crap and regardless of the ups and downs life brings.
Do you avidly dislike music critics? My impression was you’d been fairly well treated by them?
JC: I’ve certainly endured my fair share of thrown tomatoes. I think this is a good humbling and cathartic experience for an artist to deal with. And I certainly don’t dislike critics at all; there’s a necessary context for critical review. But I think this kind of review, especially in the indy circuit, can become shallow and pretentious very quickly. It’s a real cop-out for a reviewer to just speil about something they don’t like. The real challenge is for a reviewer to find something good within something they don’t like.
I’m really interested in the Apallachian aspect of the project; I remember reading at one point that it had a strong influence on recorded music because people testing early phonographs and the like went out to record musicians from that area, and it bled into a lot of early recorded music from the US. Which songs do you think captured this element, and how did the elements you gathered come to play into the record?
JC: What really inspired me about those old recordings was how live and raw they were. Many times the recorder would set up their gear right there on the front porch and those backwoods banjo players would just go to town so free spirited and natural like while the needle cut straight into that disc. I’m really inspired by that kind of fearlessness to be able to perform and record in such a live fashion. But people were far more fearless back then – they had to face much harder times; so much starvation, constant sickness and death. I think that kind of hard living made for much more passionate musical expressions – people really had to have a way to release!
Do you think our relative comfort today has changed the type of music we produce?
JC: Absolutely. Innovations in technology have made it so we don’t necessarily have to work as hard to achieve results that surpass the styles and standards of yesteryear. But with all this ease of use and the endless ocean of presets, a slew of lazy modern music has emerged like a bad disease. But I love that no matter how drowned in comfort the world becomes, people will always have the will to want and make good heart felt music. That’s just a part of our beautiful design…
Can you still see the influence of Appallachian music in modern music today? Is the DNA still recognisable to you?
JC: Those styles today are somewhat watered down I guess. Music tends to be so produced anymore that I think it’s harder to find folk or bluegrass music that can really capture the spirit of those old recordings. Those were one take wonders by truly unique people who lived in much different times. Also I think musicians back then were far less intimidated by the microphone.
True, and I’ve heard it said that after the players heard themselves played back, their style of playing changed. They’d never heard recorded music before, and actually hearing themselves played back affected the way they played. Does listening to the material you’ve recorded change the way you’ve developed as well?
JC: Certainly so – it’s a healthy move for a musician to record themselves performing then listen back to it. You can get a more objective perspective of the music and it’s easier then to tell if the music is worth sharing with the world or not. Also, I like listening to my music with random people in the room listening. I certainly get a bit self-conscious but that allows me to have a more psychologically heightened awareness of what’s going on in the music. So that helps mistakes or improvements just pop right out of the songs…
“People’s faces reflect what God has given them and just as importantly, what others have caused, shunned or propagated. A number of folks simply can’t speak efficiently for themselves. I find the faces I photograph easily enough, but society has often conditioned many to stay as they are, while speaking worlds apart. Only when we as a people learn to accept our complete collective shadow and integrate within society, will we begin to mend.” - Shelby Lee Adams
The Beautiful Nowhere is released on or about July 1 on Hibernate, in a limited edition vinyl pressing of 250. There is also a limited edition CD of 200 copies, with a printed recycled pulp card placed inside handcut/folded/made textured organic mulberry paper sleeve hand stamped on the front; all kept safely in a hand sewn hessien bag. The album is mastered by Taylor Deupree, with artwork by Jason Corder & Jonathan Lees and includes photography by Iris Ann Sigurðardóttir. An instant digital download is included for both formats.