Kurt Weisman: Interview
“It’s more just a sound idea.”
If a homesick alien were to fall to Earth, meet a girl, pick up a guitar, and retreat to a cabin in the woods, it’s possible his first record would sound a lot like Kurt Weisman’s 2010 album Orange (TMT Review). Across eight songs and just more than 30 minutes, Weisman channels the spirits of John Fahey and Syd Barrett through new-age folk songs brimming with sing-along hooks, synths, and fingerpicked guitars, all beautifully recorded and mixed by his friend Ben Stamper.
In fact, it was Stamper and Kurt’s brother Chris who helped him record his first album when he was in elementary school. He went on to study classical and jazz trombone as a teenager, and has since dedicated himself to songs and guitars. (Although there is some sped-up trombone on his 2008 space-folk odyssey Spiritual Sci-Fi.) Around 2004, he and Kyle Thomas started Feathers, the eight-piece psychedelic folk collective that went on to record an album for Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic’s Gnomonsong label.
Not long after Feathers fizzled out, Weisman started living off the grid in a cabin in Vermont. That’s where he wrote the songs for Orange (#22 on our 2010 list) and is currently working on an album of lock grooves, 1.8-second compositions intended to be pressed into concentric circles on vinyl and play infinitely, at least until you get up and drop the needle into the next groove. Weisman says he thinks of them as “moving sculptures.” In the past few months, he’s also played gigs in the US and Canada with Nat Baldwin and Travis Laplante and traveled to the UK to play synths in his friend Thomas’ pop band Happy Birthday.
We met last summer and sat out in a field that Weisman referred to as his office. Birds chirped all around us and the faint hiss of trucks on highway drifted in the background.
How long have you been writing songs?
Since I was a kid, pretty much. I had an older brother [Chris Weisman] who was into music, and we got into recording and writing songs. I made an album when I was 12. I was really into Syd Barrett when I was a kid. I wanted to be him.
Were you the only 12 year old in your town who wanted to be Syd Barrett?
Yeah, pretty much.
[Your brother] Chris told me you were a trombonist throughout high school and college. How did the trombone thing and the Syd Barrett thing work together, or were they totally separate worlds?
Yeah, I pretty much did academic music on the trombone as a kid, took lessons and learned classical and jazz, and had a lot of fun playing with people and doing that. But I kinda considered songs to be separate from that, kind of two different worlds, in a way. Which is too bad, maybe, because they could be one world.
You’ve been living in a cabin in rural Vermont. What’s that like?
I was just looking for a new place to live anyway, and I just happened upon this place. It seemed like it would be a good place to work on music without distractions and to just live mindfully — cooking and paying attention to things other than computers. And it’s really been that way. It’s been really positive to live there. Not that I spend every second there or something. It’s made it so I have time to play guitar in a different way than when there’s other things going on.
“When I start singing, people are looking and smiling at their friends and there’s some, like, “Oh my gosh, who is this guy?” but usually that doesn’t last that long.”
How is it different?
I feel like in the past, when I had electricity I would get into watching movies at night or using computers in all these different ways and maybe play some guitar, but when I play guitar at my house, I’ll just sit and play for hours in complete silence, and it’s a really good thing to get to do.
How has your guitar playing changed?
I think that I’ve always had the tendency to play music by ear and just play by shapes and sounds and things. When I was younger, I fought that tendency. I tried to do things that I understood and could analyze. I would try to know what chord I was playing, or something like that. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more and more willing to let go of all that and just play based on feelings and shapes and not worrying about what anything is called at all. Kind of just unlearning all of that stuff, I think, is the gradual direction of my guitar playing.
And do you think that comes out on Orange?
Yeah, I think that in some ways it’s simpler than earlier music that I’ve done, but the reason that it’s simple isn’t because it’s based on simpler ideas. It’s more just not really based on ideas. It’s more just a sound idea.
Is it possible that it’s simpler because there’s so much less on it than, say, Spiritual Sci-Fi?
I think that, besides the fact that my music used to be harmonically more dense — also since I was using the recording studio as a tool and a lot of it was about these collages — that was really maximal kind of music that I was doing. And so now that I’ve kind of pared it down, there’s less clashing types of ideas at once.
When you were writing Orange and went to New Jersey to record it, did you have any goal for the songs, anything you wanted to express that was specific? Or just was it that these were the songs you wrote during a period of time?
“You don’t know until you go out and sing a song, if people are gonna find it to be useful.”
Yeah, it’s more like a diary or something than I’d done before, more like these are the songs that I’ve been singing. I was just trying to get a good recording of how it sounds when I sing the songs. I didn’t worry too much about the idea of it as an album. I just thought of getting these songs recorded. And then once we sequenced it, it turned out to be a good set.
Were you trying to get the sound of you playing by yourself in the cabin?
Well, there’s not really a lot of room sound in my house, so we did it in my friend Ben [Stamper]’s art studio, which is a big old concrete factory building in Orange, New Jersey. We chose that room because there would be some liveness to it. So we were trying to get a sound — we didn’t use any reverbs or anything like that. We just used a tape machine and a couple microphones, and we were trying to go for the feeling of a live performance.
You were saying your older music is harmonically dense. What about something like “Self-Portrait with Skull”? Greg Davis pointed that out to me as something that shows how advanced your guitar playing is. Is there anything about that song you can tell me?
That’s one of the ones I wrote earlier than the other songs, and it’s kind of a continuation of a thing… I was writing these intricate songs that were just getting more and more atonal. At the same time as being lyrical, they were getting less and less related to any kind of conventional key, I think. And I wasn’t using any kind of process to do that; it’s just writing by ear. And the lyrics are reflective of that, I think, too. So that song’s definitely kind of on a different path than some of the other stuff on the album that’s more kind of confessional or sounds more like speaking. [That style is] not something that’s over, but it’s definitely something that comes from earlier, or it’s a path that I’ve been on for longer.
What about lyrics on the album? It seems to me that “Let My Spirit Rise” and “New Blueberry Song” are both very confessional.
Well, there’s a certain kind of a song that just pops into your head, I think, and I actually used to think of them as kind of like fake songs or throwaway songs, where I’d be writing pieces like “Self-Portrait With Skull,” and I’d be spending hours a day perfecting these guitar parts, and then sitting down and writing lyrics that are very composed and written … and maybe at night I’d just hear some pop tune, some little thing that had a hook that’s like almost like a Paul McCartney kind of thing, and I’d just think, “Oh, here’s a song,” and I’d just write that down, or, not write it down, but I’d play it. And then I’d kind of think, “Oh, that’s not a real song.” But lately I’ve been finding out those are the real songs. [Laughs] Not that the other songs aren’t good, but I’m just trying to be open, not editing out things because they seem kitsch or something, just opening myself to those kinds of songs.
What has that done for your writing?
It’s freed me up a lot. Just to consider any kind of song as a possibility. People will respond really well to some of the songs that you might not [think are great]. You don’t know until you go out and sing a song, if people are gonna find it to be useful. [Laughs]
” And then I’d kind of think, ‘Oh, that’s not a real song.’ But lately I’ve been finding out those are the real songs.”
You toured Europe in early 2010. How was that experience?
Going to Europe was great because there were really attentive audiences. It might help to be an American playing guitar; it’s kind of novel in this way, or classic or something. But I really got a sense that… people really went out to see the music, instead of just going to drink or to see their friends, which is fine, but… It was a really special situation a lot of the time. I was doing some really simple songs, some newer songs, and even if people didn’t speak great English, which a lot of them actually did, better than I sometimes, they seemed to really get something out of the songs. I had really positive responses. And I did some instrumental songs, and some stuff that was a little more out than my other stuff, and there were no real bombs.
Did you have any reaction to the way you sing, in the high tenor and quavering falsetto?
Yeah, it’s weird. I don’t know how that started, how I started singing in the falsetto voice. It just developed over a long period of time, I guess. Now it’s kind of funny because I can’t tell what my real voice is, per se. I guess I don’t believe that someone has a real voice; I think they can sing any way. But, yeah, sometimes people are really taken aback by it. When I start singing, people are looking and smiling at their friends and there’s some, like, “Oh my gosh, who is this guy?” but usually that doesn’t last that long. Usually, people they get over that pretty quick and start to hear something in it, I think.
You once mentioned Elizabeth Cotton as an influence on your guitar playing. How did she influence you?
The ways that I got the physical ability to play the kinds of things I wanted to play was from listening to and trying to play country blues and Elizabeth Cotton and John Fahey. I would hear these multiple parts and I wanted to learn how to do that. And also, I spent a couple of summers trying to learn banjo, like Scruggs-style banjo, and that’s all these rolling patterns and switching between them. And I think that all that stuff really kind of found its way into my playing. But that’s just kind of the percussive element. There’s also the guitarists that I listened to for the sounds of the notes and the sounds of the guitar. Like Syd Barrett’s really influenced me — his lead guitar playing.
What about it influenced you?
The freedom of it. How melodic it is and the way that it’s like singing or speaking in a way — but you can say anything. [Laughs>] That’s really beautiful to me.
Can you tell me a bit about what it was like to play with Dirty Projectors and Björk [in 2009]?
I just got and email from Dirty Projectors asking me if I wanted to go play with them and Björk. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this, this is crazy,” you know? I was working at record stores in the 90s; Bjork is like this ultimate thing. Just unimaginable. Just going to see her play would be amazing, and here I am, gonna be probably meeting her and all this stuff, so I really just spent a couple months practicing really hard and thinking a lot about that show. I went there and had a great time and everything went well. It could have been really overwhelming, I think. But I was prepared, and it was a good experience.
Did you get to meet her?
I met her, but I was too shy to really say anything substantial. I think I said “Hi.”
Did it feel at all like you were there with this star and this really hot band or was it more you were all there to do your thing?
It felt like there was a real sense of unity with the people setting up the project, because everyone was taking it so seriously. They were actually all practicing downstairs in this room, and I was practicing in another room. We were all just frantically practicing. And after that, just partying all night. It was a really special occasion.