The last time TMT spoke to the constantly busy John Dieterich, D-Bo went off on Dieterich’s absolute shred prowess within the context of Deerhoof in his introduction. As much as Dieterich completely tears it up in the ‘Hoof, it’s nothing compared to the onslaught of sound he and collaborator Thollem McDonas create on their new record as Bad News from Houston. For two guys primarily wielding acoustic guitar and piano, the duo manage to coax wonderfully unholy noise out of their instruments of choice. Bad News From Houston’s new record, In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder, is an eclectic explosion of sound and texture that finds the unhinged duo working through a number of stylistic languages. However, as Dieterich makes abundantly clear, despite the improvisatory/free nature of these works, he and Thollem strove to keep the exploratory energy and nature of their collaborations active by experimenting with their pieces well after the initial recordings.
I recently spoke to Dieterich about how he and Thollem went about working on In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder and his other projects outside Deerhoof.
What else have you and McDonas worked on in the past? What separates Bad News From Houston from your previous work as a duo, and how did this come to be your first widely distributed release together?
We actually owe our collaboration to Martha Colburn, a mutual friend and incredible filmmaker, who asked us both to take part in a performance she was giving at SFMoma several years ago. Thollem and I knew each other somewhat peripherally, but we had never played together. The concert gave us an excuse to get together, and we were immediately excited about the kinds of ideas that came up. I loved that he could be very free and open but also could be completely tied in harmonically and melodically at the same time. He can work on multiple levels at the same time, which is very fun.
Around that time, we borrowed one of the rooms at Moma and recorded a duo record together, which was much more of a straight improvised recording, called All For Now, which we released on a Portuguese label called Dromos Records. We followed that by making a record with Tim Barnes (Silver Jews, Jim O’Rourke) and Mike Watt (The Minutemen, The Stooges) under the name The Hand To Man Band. We worked really closely on that recording together, and we were both surprised how we tended to have very similar ideas of what we wanted and how we should get there. Nicholas Taplin, who recorded that album, then expressed interest in recording another duo album at his house in Austin, and we both jumped at the chance.
To me, [these tracks] are very visual and tend to show you different things depending on how you listen to them. They are like aural hallucinations.
The pieces on In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder seem at once composed and organized yet often freewheeling and chaotic. To what degree is the material “composed”? What is the general writing process like?
It’s funny, because we discussed nothing before getting together to record, and the night we got there, we set up the instruments and just brainstormed about how we should approach things. We knew we didn’t want to make a straight improvised record. We were interested in coming up with some organizational principles that we could use to push us into new areas, so we immediately started coming up with some ideas about how to do that. We came up with a very elaborate system of organization — more like a game, really — which, by the time we started going through everything and mixing, we both had completely forgotten. However, that process generated a breadth of material that we both intuitively understood how to work with.
How does the collaborative process of Bad News From Houston compare to Deerhoof and some of the other projects you’ve been a part of?
I think Thollem and I by necessity work very quickly together and there’s a lot less history there, so we’re very free to just jump down some weird path, and there’s no telling where it will take us. Thollem tends to be very antsy, which I appreciate, as I can (and do) take years and years to finish things, and he’s good at striking when the iron’s hot and not belaboring something that doesn’t need to be belabored.
I know that you have a bit of a background in academic music and I’m curious how much that background factors in with this record and your other projects in general? It seems like some of these Bad News From Houston pieces wouldn’t sound too out of place at a “new music” concert.
Well, I spent a year in a graduate program in electronic music (though never graduated), but I don’t know if you could really describe that as a background in academic music. I don’t even read music. I guess what you’re saying may be that this record isn’t really a rock or pop record, which I suppose I agree with, though I used mostly the same criteria that I would use in making any other recording. I see the songs as question-marks or exploratory forays in a direction that seemed to have something fruitful in it. Some of it, especially the extremely repetitive sections, are so busy that it seems necessary to slow your brain down in order to get inside and find the stillness in it. That’s one of the things I found fascinating about those pieces, and to me those are the ones that I go back to again and again and still find myself discovering new things. To me, they’re very visual and tend to show you different things depending on how you listen to them. They are like aural hallucinations.
Are there any particularly big influences for Bad News From Houston’s work? There’s such a wide variety of tonalities/timbres that I’m sure you and McDonas must have an equally expansive vocabulary to draw from.
The obvious answer for me would just be our imaginations and our technical limitations. When you make a record, you can think of it sort of like framing a picture. In the case of this group, you have a couple of instrumentalists who tend to do this or that (whatever it is that we do/have done). When we get together, we both try to act as if we have no history and generate a situation where we aren’t tied to a particular language or approach, and are just playing (in the little-kid-in-a-sandbox sense, not the more prescribed musical sense, though in theory they should be the same thing). It’s hard to describe. Put it this way: I’m not a huge fan of a lot of improvised music. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just that improvised music can be just as codified as any other type of music, and while it can be fine if you accept the form, it loses what it is that’s inspiring about it in the first place to me. If you aren’t searching and questioning, it just becomes another overly rigid set of very specific rules that you follow in order to make something recognizable to fans of ‘X’ music.
It’s not that I’m not interested in rules. I love the rules, but I want the rules to create a situation in which the music that results breaks or re-frames some idea about what music is or was or is supposed to be. It’s probably a ridiculous goal, and I can say for sure that I often fail, but that’s sort of a built-in intuitive process for me at this point. I don’t know how else to work. One thing I really enjoyed about making this record that makes it special for me is that we set up this process that neither of us truly understood and used it to generate all of this bizarre material, promptly forgot the structure itself but were left with all this music that came from it. It’s like building some weird machine and subsequently forgetting what it’s used for. These ideas aren’t new in music, but the fact that we’re trying to work outside of any particular idiom, and use the recording itself as part of the process, means that you can get to some very interesting new places, and you learn a lot in that process.
Even though the record’s instrumentation consists primarily of guitar and piano sounds, there are some truly alien-sounding moments on these pieces (I’m thinking particularly of “Confuse the Ghosts” and “Inverted Mountain”). What modifications/extended techniques did you use to achieve these results?
The main modification that really changed everything for me (which may or may not be what you’re talking about) was the piano preparations. It isn’t like we were trying to turn it into a Cagean battery of percussion or something. The preparations we used simply turned it into a wall of sound, a mass of natural distortion and constantly varying harmonics. To my ears, it was just so fun and exciting to hear, especially with how sophisticated Thollem’s rhythmic approach could be. It essentially turns it into an acoustic noise box, which can also work with pitch relationships, harmony, etc. So, that ended up being the base that we used to build the album on. We did a lot of post-production things, as well. We were very invasive as far as the recording was concerned. One of the tricky things in working on recordings is trying to get it to sound to other people how it feels to you. It’s a weird translation game where you have to step out of your own brain and realize that, in order to translate what we hear in the music, it’s necessary to bring out certain things, alter it in certain ways. And there’s no one fix that will work from one moment to the next. It’s a fluid process.
When you make a record, you can think of it sort of like framing a picture.
Are there any plans to perform this material in a live context?
Nothing currently, no, though we do play together live sometimes.
Are you planning on doing any other collaborative or solo releases in the near future? I know you’d talked about doing some duo work with Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk And A Hacksaw at one point.
Yeah, Jeremy and I have a lot of music that we’re sifting through to make an album, and we’ve also done some recording with Heather from A Hawk And A Hacksaw, as well. It’s slow going as we’ve been very busy. We also have another band with Heather and Rosie Hutchinson and Drake Hardin from Albuquerque band Teetotum. That band’s called Tapered, and we’ve only played a couple of shows. We’re currently working on a soundtrack to a short film about Albert Hoffman. I have a ton of other recording projects in the works, including a duo record with Jay Pellicci (Dilute, Natural Dreamers) that I’m really excited about, also working on the next Hand To Man Band record with Thollem. I just did a tour with a band called Powerdove. It’s my friend Annie Lewandowski’s project, and she asked our friend Thomas Bonvalet (L’Ocelle Mare/Cheval de Frise) and I to join her. We recorded the album at my house in Albuquerque last year, and it just came out on Circle Into Square/Murailles. We’ll be doing more touring in the Southwest and on the West Coast in July. Very excited about that.
Additionally, I know you do a lot of work as a producer (working with A Hawk And A Hacksaw and the Weird Weeds amongst others) in addition to performing/composing. Do you have a particular approach to producing other artist’s work?
I guess I would say my approach is to not have any approach. I mean, I certainly have my own technical limitations and aesthetic sensibility, but I don’t come in with a specific agenda, nor do I think I have a specific sound. I just try to be responsive to what the band wants, and try to reconcile that with what I think would be good. So far, it’s worked out great, as the people who have approached me already had a sense of what I have done and wanted to work with me. The A Hawk And A Hacksaw record was the first time I really spent that much time working with another band. We got together basically every day for a month or so (they also live in Albuquerque), and it was a really great experience. I think it came out extremely well. Griffin Rodriguez also recorded some of the music for that, and those guys also did some work on their own. I helped out whenever I was available.
Finally, where does Bad News from Houston’s name come from? Is it a reference to the Townes Van Zandt song? If so, is there any significance behind why it was chosen?
You know, I have no idea. Thollem suggested that name, and I just had a gut reaction that I liked it, that it felt good for us. I know there are a lot of potential connotations associated with the name, but to me it’s just funny. It feels like the name of a teen novel or boogie-rock band.