Lost Trail is the ambient/dronegaze/experimental noise project of husband-and-wife duo Zachary Corsa and Denny Wilkerson Corsa. James loved their recent album “The Afternoon Vision”, and jumped at the chance to ask them a few questions about their work.
Firstly, how did Lost Trail start? And how long have you been making music together?
Z: Lost Trail rose out of the ashes of The Pointless Forest, a Raleigh-based post-rock band which began to dissolve on a Midwest and East Coast tour in 2010. I arrived home wanting to work on something which I had entire creative control over, without the warring agendas and schedule conflicts of a band. At the time, Lost Trail was an exercise in working with an instrument I didn’t know how to play (piano). I had been listening to a great deal of Library Tapes at the time, which is pretty apparent listening back to the earlier recordings. Before long, I began to miss playing guitar, and LT eventually became a guitar-focused project. I didn’t know how to go about this kind of music at first, as I had had no exposure to it in my little eastern NC town. It was a learning curve, for sure. Denny joined when she began to come home with her own field recordings that ended up included.
Does being part of a husband & wife team change the dynamic of the band? Does it feel different?
D: I’ve never been part of another band, so it’s hard to answer that question. Our practice space is in our house, and so we can easily move between hanging out together, eating dinner, etc., and practicing and doing other band-related tasks, such as preparing CDs or tapes to mail. Even if we aren’t necessarily performing together, a lot of tasks that I wouldn’t necessarily do if we didn’t live together get delegated between us, such as taking trips to the post office and loading equipment.
Z: I think we’re pretty good about separating disputes within the project from our marital life. We’re lucky in that there’s a shorthand when you’ve lived for years with someone and understand some of how their mind works. We have a good chemistry to the point of being able to understand what the other one’s getting at much of the time, without having to always say it verbally. It certainly makes many things easier; you already rely on this person as a partner day-to-day, so there’s already a pretty strong bond in place.
How would you describe your music?
D: A mix of many different things – guitar, piano, percussion, samples, feedback, loops, etc. Sometimes it’s ambient, sometimes loud, sometimes eerie, sometimes soothing. I can often imagine a scene behind the sound — often rolling hills, someone dancing slowly, maybe someone chasing or being chased — but I can’t see it being used for something with intricate choreography, such as a ballet.
Z: I think there’s a continuous balance depending on our shifting moods. We have times where the music can be very dark and harrowing, and other times where the work is colourful and dream-like. I think between us we have such varied interests that much of it ends up in the band. The recurring themes have stayed pretty steadfast over time: death and the afterlife, the supernatural, the dangers of travel, powerful belief systems, and the unfortunate ennui developed by American suburban sprawl and consumerism.
Does your town of Burlington, and the wider state of North Carolina, influence your music?
Z: This band absolutely did not truly take shape until we moved to Burlington. We came here lured by the promise of a big, older home with space to record in at a much more affordable price than Chapel Hill or Durham, and we found a mysterious, strange, Lynchian town that holds endless layers but still manages to be a genuinely kind and supportive community despite the oddities. A lot of people in NC dismiss Burlington for a number of obvious reasons, but if you dig past its lack of ostensible ‘culture’, you find a wealth of intriguing history and some very unusual vibes that make it different than any place I’ve ever lived. It just feels different here, and even friends passing through overnight notice it and point it out. It’s inspiring, an endless reserve of beguiling local mythology. Besides, I have no real interest in being just another Brooklyn, Austin or Portland band.
Your music is ethereal and a little supernatural to me. Do you believe in the paranormal?
Z: I’m very open-minded about the supernatural and the concept of dimensions and planes beyond this one. My family has always been open to the other world. The summer I was sixteen I had a very profound supernatural experience that I’m still processing in a lot of ways, and I think a lot of that, consciously or not, has gone into Lost Trail. But being in Burlington has only amplified it. This concept of ‘Other Burlington’ we’ve developed isn’t band myth-making or a promotional scheme designed to make our work seem more significant, it’s a palpable sensation here. Burlington is a place where the man-made veneer of reality that’s painted over everything is stretched a bit thinner, and every so often a glimpse of something else slips in. You can feel the border where you’ve crossed over into one of those strange air currents, at the edge of town or in some unfamiliar neighbourhood. It’s something I’d like to confront more directly in the music than we do, but I don’t want to draw unwanted attention to our humble little working-class mill town, either. People here wouldn’t dig that. But everyone knows that Burlington is a bit different even if it isn’t openly discussed. And yet things keep happening, like going to an antiques store when my family visited a couple of years ago and my brother finding a human femur in one of the booths, untagged, just abandoned there. Burlington is… different.
D: I don’t know. I see evidence for it either way. I’ve never experienced anything paranormal but have read and heard things about it that seem like they could be true.
Your music has turned darker recently, with tracks that could be described as doom-drone. Was this always the planned, natural progression for Lost Trail or is it something that just happened?
Z: Other peoples’ outside perceptions of our work always fascinate me. Even within the band, we’ll make something I consider pretty bleak and gloomy and Denny disagrees, or vice versa. I think the work has gotten louder lately, definitely, as we’ve moved into a more shoegaze direction and away from pure ambient, but this is actually my attempt to make colourful, dreamy, emotionally-transcendent music. Maybe it’s bittersweet, or nostalgic, but I think our older, softer work is much darker. The newer work comes out of listening to a lot of stuff like Astrobrite, just wanting to get across something other than spookiness. I know all our fans aren’t on board with it, but I’d be bored to tears repeating ourselves over and over. If we make an album people love, then they’ll always have that album, and that’s great. We don’t need to make “Nothing Is Fucked Forever” ten more times. It was a natural shift, not planned at all, and I think it’s not just healthy but crucial to a band’s survival to shake things up now and again and try something outside of your comfort zone.
Talk me through the Lost Trail process of making music.
Z: People are always surprised at how profoundly ghetto our ‘process’ is, I think, and that’s flattering, because I think we manage to get as much as we can out of very basic and primitive materials. I’m not a tech-minded person; I’ve never used a mixer, I don’t know what phantom power means, I don’t use proper microphones or interfaces. It just isn’t how my mind works. To me, that stuff is just a barrier, not an enhancement. I could never make Lost Trail recordings in a proper sterile studio environment. I’d be beyond bored.
Basically a melodic base, often guitar, is recorded live, usually to cassette that’s often been damaged or treated somehow. On top of that, other experiments are recorded in the same key. We don’t traditionally overdub, we record things independently without listening back and collage them together later, so that we’re surprised at the intriguing ways things play off each other. So the base is then recorded live from the tape player microphone into a Zoom H2 (pocket digital recorder). Other pieces go through the same process, either tape or directly digital. Then it’s all fed into GarageBand (I used to have Logic, but was overwhelmed by having too many choices, I like simple), and edited and processed until it sounds ‘right’. This often means a lot of reversing, looping, pitch-shifting, etc. Field recordings and samples almost always come last in the process. Any effects are usually done in the DAW; effects pedals are generally used only in a live setting. People would be surprised how much of what sounds like electric guitar in our work is actually acoustic.
Your music has a unique sound — are there any artists who influence you? And can their influence be heard in your music?
Z: One thing I’ve noticed is that when you make experimental music, people assume that that makes up the bulk of what you listen to. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth with us. I have a wide range of tastes. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, either, I like what I like unapologetically, ‘cool’ or not. And Denny loves a lot of classic folk and classic rock stuff, and post-rock. People don’t believe this when I tell them this, but old-time and bluegrass/Appalachian music, and stuff like Sacred Harp singing, are bigger influences on the general thematic mood of Lost Trail than any experimental music. Maybelle Carter is my favorite guitarist and the biggest influence on my playing. But aside from listening to a wide variety of music, the stuff that directly influences Lost Trail? Off the top of my head: Old time/bluegrass, Sacred Harp singing, Set Fire To Flames, Godspeed [You! Black Emperor], Tim Hecker, Daniel Lopatin, Hammock, Astrobrite, Brian Eno, Yo La Tengo, Modest Mouse, Grandaddy, early 60s surf instrumentals (my first band played these, and so much of Lost Trail is just that sort of reverby minor-chord mood slowed down), pre-reunion Smashing Pumpkins, the first few M83 albums (big one), The Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty”, Belong’s “October Language”, Library Tapes, most shoegaze, Radiohead, and a lot of film scores like “Memento”, “The Dead Zone”, “Safe”, “Silence Of The Lambs”, “Halloween”, “The Fog”, “The Shining”.
Do you vary things when you play live? How does your sound differ or change when you play live?
D: When we record, Zach mixes in many different sounds that we’ve both made or found — guitar, piano, tape samples, found sounds that I’ve recorded throughout my day, etc. When playing live, we do use a mix of instruments — primarily guitar and percussion — as well as tape samples, shortwave, etc., but the different sounds are mixed as we go. It’s a lot harder to control where a sound fits, its volume, etc. when playing live, and there are some things that are just harder to use live, such as piano.
Z: Live is a very different entity. Our recorded output has been so far processed from the source material that short of a laptop set, which isn’t usually our bag, there’s little to no way to reproduce it live. Live is usually one long piece with a general framework that we can improvise within. I personally have no interest in seeing a band live that sounds just like listening to their album through a giant speaker. I’d rather stay at home than spend money and go stand in a crowd to hear that. So we try to make it a unique, separate vibe.
What’s the atmosphere like when playing live?
Z: Both of us are rather introverted people; we’re not interested in banter and crowd-chattiness. I like as little light as possible. I just try to draw people into a space with us and have them experience something powerful through the music, as cliched as that might sound. I’m not really present; I go elsewhere. My hands are a conduit. The best shows really obtain this atmosphere of transcendence and commingled dread; the worst ones are the ones where our cheap equipment malfunctions and it turns into pure sonic soup. People always seem apologetic if they drift off at our shows, if they’re so moved or relaxed that they’re plunging down through levels of consciousness, but I take that as a compliment.
You embrace the cassette — do you feel like your music ‘fits’ the medium?
Z: The other way around, the medium fits the music. I never really considered not utilizing tape with Lost Trail. Tape is always going to sound more organic to me, warmer, more beautiful in its unpredictable imperfections. So much of digital recording sounds cold and shiny in a bad way. I’m not interested in sonic perfection, I’m interested in unpredictable results. And personally, I kind of disdain this idea of gadget culture. “This iPhone is a year old, time to get the new one because Apple tells me so”. No thanks, dude. I hate waste. You don’t just toss aside old technology and call it ‘obsolete’ because there’s something newer and fancier out there. It’s totally arguable that new = better. It’s just different. I couldn’t do what we do without a Macbook or whatever, but the older technology is still legitimate. It’s absolutely a must for the kind of haunted, damaged air we want to convey. We’re re-users at heart. Our tapes aren’t even new, they mostly come from The Scrap Exchange in Durham, NC. We find odd samples on them and then record over them until they’re beautifully falling apart and warbly. We have a giant Delta Airlines flight attendant case full of over a thousand cassettes. There’s sincere unironic love for the medium here.
The tape is a home comfort kind of sound; we grew up with it and it’s an important part of the past. Can it be an important part of our future, do you think?
Z: Absolutely. I think it’s very easy for people to dismiss the tape resurgence as some ‘hipster fad’. For those of us who didn’t grow up wealthy and still aren’t, tapes never went away. Now, as a full-time musician, I see how much I can count on smaller labels at least being able to do a run of tapes whereas otherwise they couldn’t afford a crucial physical product, and in light of those intentions it makes me very defensive when people claim that anyone who loves tape is just doing it to be contrarian. That’s never been true for me. We’re a generation with such a bleak and frightening future that there’s a good reason we’ve retreated into nostalgia, whether it be the love of sonic imperfection as a rejection of false, insincere digital ‘purity’, to collections of ’90s toy commercials on YouTube. Some of those things are fads, of course, but I think the cassette’s never going to go away.
I always get the feeling there’s some kind of statement on American identity in your music — nationally, or locally. Do you try to get across a specific message in your music, and do you do any historical research on your locations?
Z: There absolutely is. When the project started it was apolitical, but so much has happened since then, not the least of which is the absolute destruction of North Carolina as the progressive beacon Denny and I were raised in, and now this blatant racist violence we’re having in America with our police forces, that it can’t help but creep in. Denny and I are both pretty dedicated progressive and peace activists, both through the channels of Quakerism and just our personal convictions. Things are just so dispiriting right now. But even from the beginning, Lost Trail’s been largely driven by the idea of what I’ve long felt is America’s general decline, this sad sort of eerie half-light we’re entering as this ‘golden age’ of big box shopping and unchecked suburbia and rampant corporate abuse and pollution dies down. There’s a sense of Delilloian doom lingering in everything now, and in America you feel this real current in the air, this almost half-felt perception that we’re basically Rome right before the fall. I think a major paradigm shift is coming, and I think this the ebb tide, the waning days of that kind of 1950s boom-generation mentality. Our national situation is the end result of that sort of unchecked, dehumanized capitalism. And I think part of Lost Trail is communicating that feeling, standing here with such a giant shift in the wind advancing towards us, and documenting the effect of those days and their encroaching end on nature, on the sense of wilderness this country used to have, and on how people go about their day-to-day lives in the shadow of a thousand logos and a horizon crowded with Best Buys and Jamba Juices and abandoned malls and mega-churches and gated McMansion developments. It’s killing us and it’s killing this country, and I think the violence we’re seeing and the way people are reacting to these shifting social/economical constructs is really spelling out that the system as we know it can’t sustain itself very much longer.
So maybe that’s why we’re drawn to the sense of history lingering especially here in NC, the way the ghosts of the Civil War and our slavery and Jim Crow past linger in everything, no matter how many combination KFC-Pizza Huts or all-night driving ranges we build to try to paint a pretty mural over that past. There’s nowhere in the US with a greater and more mysterious identity conflict than the South, and we’re first and foremost a Southern band. Those ghosts are all still here, in every brick of a crumbling textile mill half-lost in the reeds behind the loading docks of the Big Lots. These places where the natural order of things intersects with man-made decay, and is taking them back…that’s fascinating.
What kind of equipment do you use, and is there any particular reason you use those specific instruments? What kind of tone are you looking for? How long have you been playing?
Z: Well, we have an insane amount of tape machines. For many bands lo-fi is an economical choice rather than an aesthetic one, and they grow out of it once they’re tossed some label money and some studio hours. That’s not the case with us. We’d still be doing things this way if we won the lottery tomorrow. That being said, I would certainly upgrade our effects pedal situation if given the financial opportunity, and maybe pick up a better acoustic while I was at it. But I adore my main guitar, a red Ibanez Jet King my Mom bought for me in 2008, at a combination gun store and music instrument shop in Elizabeth City. It’s the best Jazzmaster copy on the planet, and it’s a real shame Ibanez stopped making them. Their versatility is unreal. I also have a real fondness for the Teisco-Silvertone-Harmony era of cheap 60s pawnshop electrics, and my other main electric is a Teisco K2L with a fondue fork for a tremolo bar. Also cherished is the 1920s Hackley upright piano we’ve had since the beginning, rescued for free from a garage in Cary off of Craigslist. That piano is crucial to the sound of this band, despite it needing numerous repairs and consistently falling out of tune in its upper register. The 60s Lowrey organ is well loved, too. There’s something about older instruments, and it probably comes from the same place that leads me to love the hiss and warble and crackle in old cassettes. I guess tone isn’t super important, since the work gets so deeply processed later on. Lots of reverb and delay, like anything else in the genre. Six different distortion/fuzz pedals; I like a creamy 90s Pumpkins distortion, and I love to have different options for feedback. A mess of Sonic Youthian feedback is the greatest sound in the world, more or less, and the most fun one can have as a guitarist.
I’ve been playing since seven years old. A cousin gave me an old nylon-string and I gradually taught myself by ear, other than a year of lessons at ten. I still can’t read music. It’s a bit more difficult on piano, which is why piano stuff for Lost Trail sounds so primitive, I’m sure. But I don’t care. Technical wizardry interests me about as much as pristine fidelity.
Your field recordings are very effective and very intense. Where do you get your field recordings and radio broadcasts from, and how do you determine which one to use and where?
Z: We seem to have fallen into a general division of labour re: field recordings. Denny handles the recordings of the natural world, usually picked up around her job in childcare, and I find strange bits of things on shortwave or online/on YouTube, especially dialogue-wise. People deeply devoted to their idea of religion fascinate me, and they end up in the music quite often, not because we agree at all usually with what’s being said but because such fervent belief pairs well with such inherently elegiac music (I’m reminded of the “Chart #3” section of Godspeed’s “Static”, which is responsible surely for much of my obsession in these musical areas). Also, anything to do with travel accidents, for some reason. Cults, near-death experiences, protests, numbers stations, weather reports, supernatural stories on Art Bell’s call-in shows… it just all seems to pair well with the music. They compliment each other, and they’re as much a part of the music as the notes being played. This is absolutely crucial to me. Which one to use where is just one of those things where all you can say is that you’re a conduit, that the answers come from ‘out there’ and aren’t really your doing. We also tend to leave outside-the-house noise in from live tracking, something I picked up from my Set Fire To Flames obsession years ago. Before discovering those albums, I didn’t know you could do that. Random chance! You can’t get that sort of off-the-cuff, playing-to-music-in-your-living-room vibe from a studio.
D: Both of us find field recordings. I record various sounds I hear throughout my day. I’m a nanny, and I often record sounds such as children playing at a park, a toy that makes sound, museum sounds, etc. I also record other sounds as well (machines, trains, etc). We have an extensive collection of tapes and some records, and we find many field recordings online as well. Many of our tapes came from The Scrap Exchange in Durham, NC. We like the idea of using sounds for which others have no use. Zach generally determines which sounds to use in a song.
Where do you see your music heading?
Z: I like to think we’ll continue to follow our own impulses, and hopefully not listen to what people would rather us be doing. I love the idea of trying on different styles within the wider framework of ambient and drone, of toying with the expectations of what those genres should be. I think we already do so by being more lo-fi than a lot of the Eno-heads would prefer, but a bit more experimental than a lot of the K Records type of folks might want. It can be hard to find a following that way, but I think we do alright. I know we both sincerely hope that this will be the year when we can find a larger label home and break through to a wider audience. We’ve gotten so much nice press from folks like yourself, and from sites like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, The Wire, Ad Hoc, Decoder, etc., and I really hope this can translate into a bigger label taking a chance on us, and not just because I do this full-time and it’d be a rewarding payoff for a lot of years of sacrifice and hardship. I just genuinely think our music deserves the wider attention. I know ambition is frowned on in underground music, and you’re supposed to pretend any success is accidental, but I really don’t buy into that. We work hard, we believe in what we do, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise to seem ‘hip’ or whatever. So more than anything, that’s my goal for this band, to get it out to as many people as possible, to share it with anyone that’ll have us.
What’s in the pipeline for Lost Trail?
Z: We have a reputation for releasing a great deal of music, and this year’s no exception. A great deal of this is work that’s been recorded over the last couple of years that’s finally seeing the light of day. There’s a lot of great stuff in terms of splits and tapes coming up, but most exciting to me is two upcoming vinyl releases, the first of which is a 12″ full-length on Bleeding Gold, “A Foreground And A Backdrop”, and the other being a 12″ split on Little L Records with my good friend (and bandmate in An Occasion For Balloons) Nate Wagner, with his stellar lo-fi ambient project Leaaves. Other than that, some local and festival shows, and a run of East Coast dates in August. An exciting years awaits us!