We’re handing the reins of our journal over to Jessica Ramsey of Los Angeles’ Moon Honey—one of our favorite bands in town—as she interviews and is interviewed by members of WARGIRL and Sugar Candy Mountain. The bands are playing a free show together at the Echo tonight along with Winter and Magic Wands.
Jess speaks with Ash Reiter of Sugar Candy Mountain (below, right):
Jess: First – we’re so saddened by the latest happenings in Oakland (your home base) concerning the Ghost Ship fire and send our condolences to those affected. In the midst of tragedy and anxiety over safe and affordable housing, what would you say has been a source of comfort or strength for the Bay Area artist community? Do you have any advice concerning self-care or how we should treat fellow artists at this time?
Ash: We find strength in each other. We take care of each other in the ways we can. We get together for Friends Giving and eat way too much bread pudding and laugh way too much. We go for winter hikes in Tilden and walk around with 5 pounds of mud caked to each foot discussing our futures. We go to each others shows and find ourselves in awe. My take away from this year has been to spend more time with the people you love, they are the only thing to precious to lose.
Jess: Have the events of 2016 shaken or detoured your current artistic course and/or musical direction following the release of your most recent album 666?
Ash: 2016 was a very ambitious for us as a band. We spent much of the year touring and recording our own music and helping record a couple albums for friends The Blank Tapes and fpodbpod. We also moved away to Joshua Tree from Oakland where we had lived for the past years. This was partly in response to the Bay Area housing crisis- at the time we still had reasonable rent but there seemed to be an incredible pressure on the city as it tried to absorb influx of new residents and exodus of many longtime natives. Oakland hardly felt like my city anymore. With 2016 now behind us we look forward to finishing a couple new album this year and touring Europe this spring.
Jess: Do you think artists have a responsibility to help shape the culture of modern America, and can we positively affect culture without being directly political—simply by expressing ourselves in our purest, most free form?
Ash: I believe the personal is political. As artists we may have more opportunities to call attention to issues and rally people to action, but we certainly have the power to move people towards feeling. I think that’s the only responsibility of an artist is to inspire people to feel more deeply- whether it be a feeling of peace or restless, heartbreak or ecstasy, rage or grace. Coming closer to our emotions allows us to reach a higher plane of self-knowledge. Understanding our inner landscape gives us better grounding to grasp the world around us.
Ash: Sometimes I have difficulty finding the right words for a song. Do you have somewhere specific you turn when you are having trouble with lyrics?
Jess: I have difficulty too! I try to turn back to my journals—moments when I’m very emotional and childish and let large amounts of words spill out without judgement or form. I take a big chunk later and try to whittle them down like a sculpture to a more styled and meditated form. I get to erase most of the embarrassing parts.
Ash: I like to think about different sorts of albums I plan to record and then begin writing the songs with specific reference points in mind. This can mean be attracted to a particular tone, wanting to emulate a specific singer, bring in an unusual instrument or play a certain genre of music. Together all these things give me a vision for a cohesive album. That said can you describe a future album you would like to make?
Jess: We do have visions of what our future music sounds like that usually get extremely derailed! For the album we are currently finishing, we became obsessed with replicating the recklessness of the Rolling Stones, the darkness of Bowie’s Low, and the mysticism of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda. I’m glad we had those things there for a healthy guideline when our canoe traveled too far down the neurotic creek. Longterm we’re aiming to make big points in simple words.
Ash: What music would you like to have at your funeral? (Mine is The Velvet Underground)
Jess: Andrew inserts: “I would like Are You Experienced or a traditional jazz funeral playing as everyone gets naked and speaks in tongues. Afterwards have my guitars and body thrown into the Caribbean Sea so I can introduce pentatonic riffs to the angel fish.”
I personally would like a mix tape beginning with “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” from Sound of Music, with entries by Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and John Lennon. I’m thinking I’d like to be buried with a fig tree, just for the gross dare factor of someone eating my figs.
Jess speaks with Matthew Wignall of WARGIRL:
Jess: I understand via search engine that you’re the artist responsible for the pregnancy and birth of WARGIRL—an artist of all mediums who wrote, produced and engineered the tracks as well as filmed and edited the “People” music video, made the album art, and hand-assembled vinyl art packages for release. Please correct me if I’m wrong! I appreciate the colossal amount of effort that must have gone into the project, and I think that effort combined with a wonderful cast of musicians really paid off in an undiluted, soulful, analog aesthetic. In a modern musical landscape dominated by streaming services and DAW plug-ins, why is it important to you guys to make the human hand evident in your work?
Matt: While the band was started by me, it is very much of a collaboration. Many of us have been making music together for years and we all have this sort of broke down, duct tape, hissy analog aesthetic. I make records for other bands and have an analog recording studio so that makes for a great focal point for us creatively. Without the ladies we would be nothing. There really is something to the woman’s touch idea, so any idea I come up with and start to execute it’s always, how do I get the girls to make this cooler. They are all so insanely talented. Everyone sucks at texting and social media and everyone makes art so I think we all just more or less found each other, and we enjoy creative irregularities, accidents, distortions, individuality. It’s not so much that it is important to us, it’s all we know. We are lucky to have ended up all together.
Jess: The lyrics, “People are you living? / Get together now,” feel just as relevant today as they would have in the 60’s and 70’s. The Aretha nodding to Rhianna vocals with Jessica Rabbit appeal are the creamy peanut butter to the vintage jelly instrumentals of maximum vibe. Who wrote the lyrics, and do you find it at all uncanny that they were intuitively written before an extremely divisive election? Or do they simply reflect a political reality you were already in tune with long before America woke up to an enormous hang-over and new President Elect? I recently came across a quote by R.M. Koster which reads: “An artist predicts the future because, unlike others, he knows the present.” Can we expect to find more healing balm for our many political scabs inside the full length record?
Matt: That song was one of our first but it sets the tone of what we are about. Music and all art are things that bring people together, and hopefully, say something that causes some kind of change in an individual or group. When you listen to third world music, especially in Africa in the 60s and 70s, it is the voice of the people. It is progressive experimental folk music, taking what they grew up with and combining it with things they were hearing out of England or America. You can see this in most heavily oppressed cultures, the perspective is one of people unifying over common frustration or desperation. When it comes to our music we honestly don’t overthink it, this is our perspective and it comes out naturally. A good example, our percussionist was born in Ecuador and came to America with his mother at a very young age. I’ve been playing with him in bands since he was 13. He has spent more than 20 years trying to get legal residency. He has a college degree, he makes the world sound better as a musician, and he’s about the best person you’d ever want to know. Then you got Trump talking about mass illegal deportation. It’s easy to hold up a criminal and say this guy should be deported, but what about all the amazing people who were brought here by their parents and have nothing back where they came from?And how broken is our system that people like this cannot get residency when playing by the rules for decades? What about militarized police on private native land over Christmas? What about years of Bush wars sustained and sometimes elevated by Obama? I hate getting preachy but come on, there’s so much frustrating stuff going on that we can’t help but say something about it and hopefully make it positive. This older generation of political sellouts will die off sooner than later with their GMO heavy diets, and how will the next generation change things? We want to encourage people to make things better. Music is an amazing tool to do this. Protest can be positive.
Matt: So I’m really tripping out on the music you all make, I’m totally fascinated by the singing, the lyrics, really the whole package. There’s obviously prog rock influences, and probably theatre…I’m wondering how a band from Baton Rouge, Louisiana got here musically… Baton Rouge to someone from LA seems like Pirates of the Caribbean, I think of that part of the country as a kind of magical place with all the music and history and culture, tell me about how that culture and music and art shaped you into the unique performers you are now.
Jess: Aw shucks! It’s a bit more Pirates of the Caribbean than you might suppose, since our guitarist and composer Andrew grew up in Grand Cayman, a small island in the Caribbean. He moved to Baton Rouge with his father at age 13 out of excitement for American culture. His father, Frank Martin, is an outrageous music collector and raised Andrew on prog. As a child Andrew remembers lullaby night drives on which his dad blared King Crimson, Yes, Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc. Louisiana was a bit of a foreign place to him, but one in which he delightfully discovered troves of extremely talented musicians to collaborate with.
I grew up with more of a Christian church background. My first experience of playing music was when I joined the middle school worship team. My teens were spent in the swamp of St. Gabriel next door to Alligator Bayou. There’s a soggy, humid, mosquito driven depression that maybe unscrews our caps a little—just enough to make Louisiana the expressively flamboyant way that it is. I idolized New Orleans’ light hearted attitude, as well as respected the heavy history and voodoo spirit. When I finally became involved in the music scene, we wanted to explore new territory. We gave our best go as angsty young ones to stay away from every form of live music we were used to hearing in New Orleans: jazz, blues, Afro-Cuban, Cajun, Zydeco, folk, gospel. The appreciation never went away, though, and I do think these influences are finally leaking out our bathroom faucet. There are elements of Caribbean, horn jazz ensembles, twang, and whoopin’ and hollerin’. We’ve evolved into a Mardi Gras parade.
Matt: Jess, your vocals are so unique, and I think the lyrics are very original, I’ve listened to “Life Has No Meaning” 3 times this morning by the way. I would love to hear about your perspective on singing, what inspired you to experiment and find your own voice, and how your singing fits into the musical ideas you are projecting.
Jess: Thank you – I appreciate the open ears. To our readers, “Life Has No Meaning” has a positive message (I think), so no one worry if Matt has offed himself after a morning meditation. My inspiration to start singing was that of FOMO, or fear of missing out. Two wonderful musicians (Andrew and our former drummer Jermaine Butler) asked me if I’d like to sing in a band and I said no, I couldn’t. I was in college for fine art and had extreme stage fright. After a week it began to dawn on me that the proposal may have been the only opportunity in this lifetime I would be asked to join a touring rock&roll band. I realized I had no other choice than to try out immediately. Since then it has completely absorbed my life, and I am just as happy writing music as I am painting, as I am singing, as I am performing. My approach to it is therapeutic: how do I feel, how would I put that in words, how would I put that in melody, how would I put that in picture? Singing was wildly experimental, untrained, and not very comfortable to listen to for the first few years, then I met some beautiful women trained in opera and soul music who took me under their wing. I still feel highly untrained but at least the magic of music has stuck around for me.
Matt: Lastly do you like Scott Walker? I feel you like you would. He’s the best.
Jess: Listening now for the first time. Like an upbeat Bill Callahan in a Broadway show! Thank you for the intro. Wow this is really creepy. I’m into it and will have to fully explore what this person is.