Julian Lynch: Interview
“I kind of just shape what I like best, what sounds right to me at the time.”
Describing Julian Lynch's music is difficult, period. But it is even harder to describe his music without falling back on certain buzzwords, terms that have been so overused by music journalists over the past year that they seem to designate everything and nothing at once. We might say, for example, that Julian makes blissed-out 21st-century psychedelia, waltzing lackadaisically through the bottomless archive of musical references (Western and non-) that the internet puts at our fingertips.
Alternately, we could say his songs make us nostalgic for childhood -- not only because they return lo-fi production values of the cassette era, but because they sometimes sound like the imaginary pop songs we used to sing softly to ourselves as kids, built from half-digested FM radio snippets overheard at the neighborhood pizza parlor. We will also probably feel obliged to mention particular places (Ridgewood, NJ, where he grew up), the names of certain childhood friends that he continues to collaborate with to this day (members of Ducktails, Real Estate, and Alex Bleeker and The Freaks), and the summery, sun-bleached, or even slightly soporific sensations that his music can be expected to produce.
Maybe it's impossible to avoid this sort of shorthand, but the problem with using language of this kind is that you end up describing (or hypothetically describing) dozens of contemporary acts simultaneously. Julian isn't really convinced by all this hype-speak, either. In addition to being a musician, he is a full-time grad student in ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- and kind of a “hard sell” when it comes to knee-jerk categorizations of this kind. It seemed only fitting, therefore, that TMT find out about Julian's music in Julian's own words.
I was hoping to catch your set at the Underwaterpeoples Late Summer showcase at Market Hotel last month, but when I arrived I was surprised to find out that (a) you already gone on, and (b) that you actually weren't even in New York, and had been broadcast live over the internet from your apartment in Madison. Can you tell me a little about the experience? What was it like playing in front of a webcam knowing that you were being watched by all of your pals from New Jersey and New York?
Excellent question! When I found out that the Underwater Peoples' late summer live showcase was going to happen AFTER I left New Jersey for Wisconsin, I was pretty bummed! The scheduling was necessary for a bunch of reasons, so I totally understood why they had to do it so late in August. I joked to Sawyer, Ari, Brody, and Mimoun (the UP's) that I should play the show live via webcam. After saying it, though, we all realized that it could actually work. Just the next day, I think, we discovered that we actually had access to a projector, and so in terms of technology we were all set to make it happen. We gave it a quick check a couple days before the show, just to make sure it didn't sound awful through my computer mic or anything. I suppose it didn't... at least that's what those guys have told me, but I personally have no idea what it was like in that room on that night during my performance! There's a youtube video of it, but its very
difficult to see/hear anything.
I performed variations on the theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” with some help from my friends Luke, Pete, Marilyn, Ivan, and Daniel. It was really amusing on our end to play this show in front of so many people, but in the comfort of my (relatively) quiet apartment, drinking beers and hanging out. We definitely felt pretty positive at the end of the thing, when we heard applause coming through my computer speakers.
The experience has sort of driven me to consider other possibilities with performing via webcam. I'm doing another show like that in NYC (while I remain here in Madison) later this month. But also my friends and I were discussing how it could be cool, since I have to stay in Wisconsin because of various obligations, to have someone (who may or
may not be traveling anyways) go on tour as kind of a proxy, with a projector, setting up the equipment in various cities/venues while I do the performance from my apartment. That's not a very serious idea, but it is something I've considered. Or, if someone lives in a place that I've never toured through and wants to hear my set, they could
have me do a private performance for them in their own home (assuming they have a computer/webcam/internet access). Just mental sketches right now, but maybe someday it could be done!
"to be perfectly honest I'm never super-proud of the lyrics I write. I feel I need them because I like the sound of the human voice singing words on my recordings, but generally the songs can exist without the lyrics, thus they are usually hidden in the background or indecipherable."
Wow, that's definitely some serious 21st century thinking. Are these the kinds of ideas floating around in the ethnomusicology world these days? What are you reading about out there in Madison?
Anything regarding technology/mass media and its role in the changing relationship between people and music is definitely something that makes a lot of ethnomusicologists' mouths water, but its not what my studies are focused on specifically. This semester I've actually got a pretty light load. I'm taking this seminar on the writings of Theodor Adorno, which, as you can probably guess, involves mostly reading a lot of Adorno. Not really my cup of tea, but it needs to happen.
I'm also doing an independent study, sort of in preparation for my thesis, which is all about nationalism in the Indian diaspora. I'm reading mostly Indian/Pakistani authors taking about Indian/Pakistani nationalism, but I've also got some more broad/foundational/theoretical stuff tossed in there for good measure. Basically I'm working my way through the history of Indian nationalism since the mid-late 19th century, which alone is many many PhD dissertations worth of interest and argument, various readings on Indian diasporic identity, cultural hybridity, language and nation, Bollywood, etc. etc...
And then I'm taking Hindi, the readings for which, given my level of ability, are more along the lines of children's stories or BBC Hindi articles...all of which I struggle through.
Does any of this curiosity about Indian music rub off in your own tunes?
Well, that is a tricky question with potential layers of weird implications, historically and politically, etc. The short answer is "yeah." To some degree. Probably only superficially. If you listen to any music enough, your own work starts to take on some similarity to that music, either deliberately or not. But the structural baseline of the stuff I do is pretty much the same as its always been. I think, though, that when some people perceive a certain element in your music as coming from some source outside "Western pop," there's a tendency for that influence to become amplified in a review or blog post or informal conversation or whatever. That tendency is almost never malicious, I don't think. You can't measure musical influence though, and give some sort of a statistical breakdown of why any given sounds are present in someone's music. It would be cool if you could, for those people who write about music, but you can't. So anything that sets a song or an album or an artist apart from their contemporaries (even if it isn't actually very unique or innovative, in reality) is going to be useful when you write about that song/album/artist.
Also, I think there is an interest twist to all of this. We live in a time where we can look back on the history of the music we are exposed to (given a very readily accessible and relatively thorough material record literally at our fingertips), and consider how so many generations of musical mixing or borrowing or appropriation or straight-up pillaging have taken place all over the continents. And so, you can listen to some music made today, and ask (without any hope of ever finding an answer), "Did this sound come from gamelan or from Debussy? From Hindustani classical or from the Beatles? From Michael Jackson or Tollywood? From Monsoon or from Mahavishnu Orchestra or from Ravi Shankar or from La Monte Young?" and so on and so on, so that a sound or an instrument is so far removed from its original context that it immediately refers to a thousand disparate sources at once. That is something that I'm super fascinated by: the result of these constant back-and-forth processes of borrowing. It's like the way language changes and develops.
"But also my friends and I were discussing how it could be cool, since I have to stay in Wisconsin because of various obligations, to have someone (who may or may not be traveling anyways) go on tour as kind of a proxy, with a projector, setting up the equipment in various cities/venues while I do the performance from my apartment."
Something I really like about Orange You Glad is that it feels like you are kind of coasting through this constellation of borrowed and re-borrowed material -- not in any calculated or didactic way, but dreamily gravitating to sounds and textures and scales that evoke several different temporal and geographical sources at once. Like your clarinet, which can simultaneously sound like a jazz clarinet or an easy listening clarinet or even a Chinese hulusi. When you're plugging into this many distinct sources the emotional impact can be enormous. Do you ever think about this when you're sitting down to play?
Well, I wouldn't say so, exactly. I guess when I'm about perform or record, I've got a body of materials I'm carrying with me, like anyone else who plays music. I've got physical materials, i.e. the instruments that I own or have access to, I've got any sort of technique I've learned on those instruments, I have an (admittedly basic) understanding of music theory, and I have any sort of historical or cultural knowledge or indoctrination (or hangups/anxieties) regarding art and sound. And from there, I'm not really deliberately trying to create something that I would predict a particular audience would interpret in a certain way, like attempt to conjure an interpretive ambiguity or anything. I kind of just shape what I like best, what sounds right to me at the time, given those materials at hand. But it's also not like I'm trying to be purely expressionistic or anti-intellectual, either. I'm just not trying to transcribe a message into sound...
I like the statement that you're "not trying to transcribe an idea into sound," because it touches on a really important distinction between what artists do and what critics do. I guess what critics do is take the products that result from these subjective impulses, build theories out of them, and then try to search for some kind of intentionality on the part of the artist--kind of like what I just did above, without even really thinking about it!
What's usually on your mind when you sit down to write a song or improvise on your clarinet?
I don't think I could identify any certain mood or feeling that makes me want to make music. What I can say is this: I have noticed a pattern in terms of my living situation and environment and its relationship to my music. The times I've been the most "productive" musically (in terms of the volume of output and how happy I am generally with that output), have been times where I've moved to a new place without much social interaction. That sounds kind of unpleasant or unhealthy, but it is true. I am just able to focus a lot more when I'm experiencing the stimulation and confusion of an unfamiliar town, without anyone to talk to or hang out with. I think I'm probably not unique in this way.
"I joked to Sawyer, Ari, Brody, and Mimoun (the UP's) that I should play the show live via webcam. After saying it, though, we all realized that it could actually work."
When you sing on Orange You Glad, what are you usually singing about?
Hmmm... well to be perfectly honest I'm never super-proud of the lyrics I write. I feel I need them because I like the sound of the human voice singing words on my recordings, but generally the songs can exist without the lyrics, thus they are usually hidden in the background or indecipherable. Some of them are pretty silly and aphoristic, or, at times, completely meaningless. "Seed" is just a very abbreviated narrative about a biological life cycle. "Rancher" is about the decline of Michael Jackson's public image and wealth... written and recorded several months prior to his death. The lyrics are usually boiled down to only what is necessary to the (already pretty vague) messages. I mean, I usually sing the words pretty slowly, and the vocal melodies are often melismatic and last only for a few moments. So I don't really need that many words to begin with to make a song. Other lyrics are sometimes more personal, but not really in a transparent way necessarily. For example, "Venom" is all about me starting to make music again, among other things.
As the production suggests, I don't usually like to put my lyrics at the front of what I do musically. There were times in my life when I wanted to write lyric-driven songs, but I don't really feel that way anymore. And it's not usually how I listen to music, either. I guess some music forces you to listen to the lyrics, like Woody Guthrie where it is just voice and guitar, and every syllable is really clearly enunciated. But I remember even when I was little, I could never make out the lyrics to the songs I loved the most, and it didn't really bother me too much.
Speaking of when you were little, what was it like growing up -- musically, at least -- in Ridgewood?
When I was in high school, I had a lot of negative feelings towards Ridgewood and places like it, but now that some time has passed, it's hard to even relate to that negativity. The truth is, I really doubt I would be interested in music the way I am now if I had not grown up in Ridgewood.
Those of us from Ridgewood had a couple big factors going for us that helped cultivate our musical development. The first is the fact that our background is one of economic privilege, and our parents had the means to buy us musical instruments or pay for music lessons. Additionally, I think almost all of our parents have been incredibly supportive of our music. Part of that, in my experience, was that my parents sort of viewed playing an instrument as a possible way of being awarded college scholarships, etc. I think I picked the wrong instrument for that, though, since clarinet is super competitive. My brother had the right idea playing the bassoon. But my parents, and my friends parents, were supportive of our various rock bands in high school, and continue to be supportive of our music to this day, I think.
The other thing that was important for me having grown up in Ridgewood was the integration of music in the public schools. They get you started on instruments at a pretty young age in Ridgewood, and all of the music teachers are great. And Ridgewood High School was gracious enough to frequently host events that gave rock bands the opportunity to perform live. I think most of the shows I played before college were at Ridgewood High.
Its really easy to take all of that stuff for granted when you are young. Now that I'm a bit older and there is distance between Ridgewood and my current life, financially, geographically, and temporally, I know that I'm really lucky to have been raised in that environment.